Zen Starling is a small-time thief, wandering the Ambersai Bazar and taking what trinkets he can in order to help feed his family, and he hasn’t had too much trouble keeping his head down – until one day a drone spots him, and manages to follow him all the way to his home planet. Even worse, it brings with it a mysterious girl in a red coat, who wants Zen’s help with a heist so massive, it could change the universe forever.
Railhead is the first book in a new series by Philip Reeve, and was first published in October 2015.
The main storyline in Railhead is built around the aforementioned heist – a thrilling adventure in itself – but rather than it being the only important narrative event in the book, it instead provides the building blocks for something much larger… hence my “change the universe forever” comment. Both of these parts of the story are incredibly fun and intriguing, and the way that they were woven together was brilliant. The book did end on a bit of a cliffhanger (which might be off-putting to some people), but I found that that mostly just made me eager to read the sequel (which will be released in October, so there’s not long to wait!).
The two most important characters are Zen and Nova, and they’re both brilliant, and play off each other perfectly. Zen is a thief, and does his best to live up to all the images that the word invokes – bold, cocky, charming, and always one step ahead – but as the story progresses, we get to see a much more idealistic side to him, too. Nova, on the other hand, is often quite sentimental (not something that I was expecting from a robot), but is much more cautious and practical in terms of her actions; once she’s got a plan, she’s reluctant to change it, even when it’s not a plan that she’s completely okay with. My favourite thing about both these characters, however, is how they developed over the course of the book – changing and being changed by one another.
A few extra mentions: Threnody was a great character, too. I wasn’t a huge fan of her initially, but (again) she was very well-developed, and it definitely looks like her character arc is going to take her in an interesting direction. I also really, really loved both Flex and the Damask Rose – both characters who become important quite late in the story – and, of course, there’s Raven, who was very likeable, but had enough of a sinister vibe that he never quite seemed trustworthy; a perfect balance of heroism and villainy that left me a little unsure how I felt about him. (Which was probably the point. )
I had my doubts about the romance, as I haven’t been a huge fan of the relationships in Reeve’s previous books, but much to my surprise, it really worked! Zen and Nova’s feelings seemed to develop really naturally, and I really enjoyed watching them come to realise just how much they cared for each other. The hints at a relationship between Zen and Threnody were also quite interesting, but I’m glad they didn’t come to anything much.
My favourite thing about Railhead! I loved the detail that was put into all the places and people that Reeve created… the mysterious Station Angels; the Guardians that humans seem to be worshipping almost as if they were gods; the Hive Monks – bugs that are able to become sentient in large enough swarms – continuously searching for their own version of paradise; even the hatred that the people of Cleave showed towards the Motoriks, afraid that they’ll lose their livelihoods to this manufactured workforce… most of these things were only peripherally connected to the main storyline, but the amount of thought that went into them made the world feel incredibly real.
Another really original thing was the trains: I was expecting them to just be a means of travel, but they ended up being so much more! I’ve already mentioned that the Damask Rose was amazing (she was my favourite), but Reeve did an amazing job of making all the trains completely distinct from one another.
The pacing was great, and the writing flowed really well, making Railhead a very quick, enjoyable read. I would have liked it if the book had been a bit longer, however, so more time could be spent on the final two parts (the heist, and the aftermath of the heist). That said, neither of those sections felt at all rushed, so this little wish of mine is purely because I didn’t want the book to end. 😉
OVERALL IMPRESSION [5/5]
An unexpected gem, with an intriguing story, wonderful characters, and a vivid, imaginative world. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where this series will go next.
Anyone who’s enjoyed the author’s previous works, or who likes heist stories such as Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, or Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. I can’t think of too many other comparisons, though – this book isn’t much like anything I’ve read before…