Leaflet Review: Railsea by China Miéville

I apologize for the hiatus—I know it’s been a while. The good news is that I’ve haven’t been posting because a series of exciting adventures have struck: the whole pregnancy thing (only five weeks until the little guy comes!), moving back to Utah from Texas, and starting graduate school are just a few of them. Because of all the adventures, after the next three book reviews (this one included), I’m only going to post once a week, on Wednesdays, instead of the Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule I used to have. Now, speaking of adventures, here’s a look at China Miéville’s latest work: Railsea.
Cover for Railsea by China Miéville

On board the moiletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death & the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea—even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-colored mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a kind of treasure map indicating a mythical place untouched by iron rails—leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters & salvage-scrabblers. & it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

A Unique Spin on Classic Stories

As you may have guessed from the book description, Railsea bears traces of Moby Dick in it, only instead of hunting a great white whale, the crew of the Medes is hunting an ivory mole (the captain is certain to inform anyone who thinks otherwise that Mocker Jack is not yellow). But as I read, I found that the actual plot line bears a stronger resemblance to Treasure Island. Young Sham longs for adventure and finds a bit too much of it along his way.

However, as one would expect of Miéville, although the book draws on these classic stories, it has a texture and a feeling that is all its own. The dingy, polluted atmosphere of the world of the railsea permeates the book and makes it settle into your mind even when the scenes are on the lighter side. The worldbuilding is in depth and shows itself in everything from the way the world’s inhabitants think about dirt and water to the way the words appear on the page (the word “and” is never used, only the ampersand). Railsea’s world is, well, not necessarily a delight, but certainly a unique draw for the book. (I can’t use delight because that implies sunshine and butterflies, but between the polluted cloud of the upsky and the bizarre mutations it causes for airborne creatures, you find little of either on the railsea.)

A Lackluster Main Character

Although the setting was compelling, I found it difficult to read Railsea quickly (quite the change from how I felt about Embassytown). This was largely because the main character, Sham, didn’t particularly interest me. He is a young boy without much direction in life: he longs for some kind of purpose, but since he doesn’t know what he wants, he simply drifts from task to task and from event to event. That attitude doesn’t really change until at least halfway through the book, and by that time I’d failed to connect with him. This stands in stark contrast with Avice from Embassytown, who was a self-proclaimed societal drifter, but who was compelling anyway. However, like Avice, Sham changes a lot over the course of the book, and his growth is realistic. He just isn’t as compelling.

Final Thoughts

Outside of the main character issue, I think the book was particularly strong. I enjoyed the stylistic prose quirks—the self-aware narrator, the asides about storytelling, etc.—even when they interrupted the flow of the narrative. Speculative fiction is prone to info dumps, and many people hate them (myself included) as a general rule. But in Railsea, Miéville selectively info dumps in a few chapters, never taking more than a page or two at a time. The voice is so compelling that the info dumps don’t feel like info dumps, and the timeouts from the main plot were some of my favorite parts of the book.

Content warnings: Some violence, though it isn’t trivialized; some language, though nothing you wouldn’t hear on TV; drinking; sideways conversations about sex, but no sexual scenes.

From This Reader’s Shelf

Today I’m going to take a timeout from being a Serious Editing Professional and let you in on a secret: most every editing professional is a hopeless, passionate book lover. Don’t let them fool you with their comma-tinkering, fierce plot critiques, or official-sounding titles. Many of them are astute, professionally trained, and incredibly skilled, but underneath those things, they’re enthusiastic readers. I’m no different.

To give you a peek at my reader-life, today I’m going to share a look at my bookshelf. This is a special bookshelf: it’s transient. I’m in the middle of a months-long visit to an Air Force base, but since it’s only months long instead of a year or more, my husband and I left most of our books in my parents’ shed in Utah (thank heaven for their free space; we stole plenty of it). Here are all our books, minus books of scripture, those in foreign languages, and those I’m currently reading.

Kristy G. Stewart's Bookshelf

The Breakdown

Some of these books are titles Mr. Stewart and I have acquired since arriving here: you’ll see both Thief’s Covenant and The Rook, books that have only come out since the start of the year. There are also some necessary work-related books: the two most recent versions of The Chicago Manual of Style (or as I like to call it, BOB, for Bright Orange Bible); Eats, Shoots & Leaves; Editors and Editing; and Rewriting (which is the most useful book I’ve ever found about academic writing). Not shown is the APA publication manual.

Seven of the books directly draw on folklore or collect folktales. Yes, I read both the tales and the commentary included in The Classic Fairy Tales (edited by Maria Tatar). That’s the black book between Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Best-Loved Folktales of the World.

There’s only one book of poetry (prose is more my speed). Unless you count my Poe collection, which has both poetry and prose.

Yes, I have a complete collection of Poe covered with creepy red decor. I also have a less-complete collection packed in my parents’ shed.

Genre-wise, there’s biography, YA, dark fantasy, satirical fantasy, science fiction, horror, war fiction, nonfiction, and instructional books on screenwriting and typography. There is also a whole host of classics, but they’re contained in that sneaky little eReader on the bottom left, hidden beneath Billy Collins. (I don’t love my eReader, but I love that it carries my classic library for me.)

The books that are horizontal on the bottom of the shelf are books I brought because I am frequently set upon by sudden impulses to re-read them, so I couldn’t bear to leave them. Included in that list is Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, one of my favorites in his repertoire, which is also hidden in the eReader. If I had a hard copy, I would have brought it.

I haven’t read four books on this shelf: John Adams (I just haven’t been able to sit down to a page commitment that big since we got here), the Dean Koontz books on the right (recent acquisitions from my father-in-law), and The Hundred Dresses on the top left (a recent acquisition from my mom).

Kristy G. Stewart's "Currently Reading" Stack

In addition to that abused shelf, I have three books that I’m currently reading or am about to read. They migrate through the house with me, from kitchen to couch to bedroom and back. One of them (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland) just arrived today, and it’s hard to make myself wait to open its covers. I probably won’t hold out much longer.

If you could only bring one shelf’s worth of your books with you on a months-long expedition, which ones couldn’t you do without? Do you ever read more than one book at a time?

(Rules: Saying “I’d get an e-version of everything and just take my Kindle” doesn’t count unless you really do have your entire library on your ereader. In which case, if you only had a shelf’s worth of memory on your ereader, which files would you keep?)

Weekly Roundup: 2/18–2/24

SFWA: 2011 Nebula Award Nominees Announced

If you read speculative fiction, you should check out this year’s nominees for the Nebula. If you go to the announcement on the SFWA website, you’ll not only be blessed with a complete list of nominees, but you’ll also get links to where you can purchase the nominees, or (if possible) to where you can read them for free. I’m currently reading one of the novella nominees and I’m loving it. (Also of note, Embassytown is up for best novel. You can find my review of Miéville’s most recent release here.)

Rachelle Gardner: 13 Ways to Impress an Agent

Agent Rachelle Gardner spills the beans on how to impress an agent … or a publisher … or a reader. Admittedly, not everything on the list will impress a reader, but most of them will. The ideas  apply no matter which route you intend to take with your publishing career. Rachelle’s advice applies to both fiction and nonfiction writers, and she marks her distinctions between the two.

Jim C. Hines: Who Controls Your Amazon E-book Price?

A little more advice that can apply to those who want to self-publish and those who, for the most part, want to go traditionally. Jim Hines uses both publishing routes for different projects, and he wants anyone who’s self-publishing anything (backlist titles or new works) to keep their eyes open when it comes to who sets the prices on their work. Hint: Amazon is in the business of making Amazon happy, not necessarily making you happy.

Eye-Catchers: My Favorite Covers from 2011

I haven’t analyzed a cover for a long time (not since Mira Grant’s Feed), but before the first month of 2012 passed I wanted to share with you my favorite covers from 2011 and why I think they work.* My top three are Blackdog by K.V. Johansen (illustration by Raymond Swanland), Embassytown by China Miéville (illustration and design by David Stevenson), and The Hum and the Shiver (photographs by Valentino Sani and Marilyn Angel Wynn). They all have excellent lines to draw the viewer’s eye and serve as compelling introductions to the stories inside.

Blackdog: A Study in Eye Movement

Blackdog by K. V. Johansen

There are a lot of things I love about this cover, but all of it hinges on the spectacular illustration from Raymond Swanland. The color scheme is striking even though it isn’t flashy, because Swanland has a nice contrast between the lights and darks that adds flavor and variety without having to be extreme; the image packs a lot of elements in without feeling busy; Holla-Sayan (the guy in the foreground) is compelling.

But the thing that strikes me the most about this cover is the motion. Everything is moving. The owl is in a dive (as are the other shadowy birds), and that dive moves in the same direction as the ribbons of cloth coming from Attalissa (the girl in the center). The contrast of the bright circle in the center with all the darker elements draws your eye, but then it’s easy for your eye to flow around the rest of the cover elements following the motion lines. Then you get caught up in the intersection where Holla’s hand and his sword meet, you move up to his face, and you get hit head-on with the fact that he’s looking out from the cover. His face is the only element that isn’t synchronized with the upper-right–to–lower-left flow, and because of that it strikes a strong chord.

This cover is a study in the power of eye movement. The movement sucks you in, and the illustration has enough detail to keep you captivated for a while. Definitely long enough to decide you want to buy whatever is behind that cover. (As a nod to whoever did the text, the title color contrasts well with what’s behind it, but harmonizes with the existing illustration. It’s placement also defers to the illustration, which is smart considering how strong the illustration is.)

Embassytown: Room for Imagination

Embassytown by China Miéville

The first think I like about this cover is the color scheme. You can’t get more contrast than between black and white, and red is my favorite accent color. It’s a striking scheme that never seems to get old (for me, at least; I’m sure other people are sick to death of it).

David Stevenson uses the red judiciously: he only uses it for the author name, which is a lightweight font compared to the title typeface, so the red remains an accent, but not the note that stays with you. Where the Blackdog cover had a lot of diagonal motion, this cover is strictly top-to-bottom. The contrast of the black and red (or the black and white, depending on the viewer) draws your attention to the top. Then your eye filters down through the inverted pyramid of the jumbled letters and finally to the city, which is made up of vertical buildings.

The space between the title and the bottom of the cover is the part I like best about this cover. The jumbled letters give you an idea that words are important to the city below. It gives you hints; it gives you an impression of what Embassytown, the city, is like; it gives the city both a glow and a shadow. Those hints and impressions and contrasts are interesting, and they’re ripe for a viewer to start creating a story of their own with the image, a story that will compel them to read.

The Hum and the Shiver: Simple Can Sell

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

This cover is different than the other two because it relies on two images instead of on a specific illustration (if you’re a self-publisher thinking about a stock-photo cover, take note).  Neither photo would make as compelling a cover alone. The landscape image is full of beautiful color. The yellows and oranges in the sky catch the eye, and they do so all the better because they’re bordered by the unobtrusive blue of the mountains below.

The shape of the mountains draws down in a V that guides the eye to the central figure (the other image). Like the city and the jumbled words of the Embassytown cover, this figure lets you, the viewer, start to tell yourself a story. Here is a woman, partially transparent, holding a stringed instrument. Because she’s nondescript—you can’t really see her face, you don’t know exactly what she’s feeling—you have the freedom to fill in the gaps.

This cover is simple: the contrasting colors draw your eye, and the solo, nondescript figure lets you tell yourself a story. It’s powerful from an emotional sense, and it sets a beautiful tone for the book inside.

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*Remember, I’m not extensively skilled as a designer. I’m decent with typography and word-based design, but not stellar when it comes to creation. I leave the illustration and design to my more able colleagues. You don’t have to be able to create awesome stuff to love awesome stuff and to be able to say why.

Leaflet Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown by China MiévilleIn the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties: to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer believes in, and to her place in a language which speaks through her, whether she likes it or not.

First, check out that cover. Isn’t it awesome? Maybe it’s my recent obsession with black-white-red color schemes, but I love it.

China Miéville is known for bending things: definitions, genres, minds. His latest novel, Embassytown, follows that vein. It’s a science fiction novel, a mystery, a thought experiment. It’s a book that, at one point, I thought of as the Opium Wars in Space, except it’s not like the Opium Wars at all.

What drew me to the book was the idea that it’s all about language: the Embassytown colonists and their Ariekei Hosts speak very different languages. The Hosts have two mouths that speak in tandem, but simply emitting simultaneous sounds is not enough to speak their language: machines cannot speak it; they cannot write; they have no word for “that.” Hosts can only speak the truth, because their language is truth, and they only hear Language when there is a soul behind the sounds. They need humans to act out events so they can construct similes; for this to be like that, that must have actually happened. Avice Benner Cho, the main character, is the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given her, and the Hosts use her simile all the time.

So that’s what intrigued me. What really impressed me was Avice’s growth. This is a character who is very different at the end of the book than she is at the beginning, and yet her growth is so masterfully done, so natural to her surroundings, that it never felt like a character arc. It felt like someone maturing to meet her circumstances; it felt real.

I’m not normally in for alien-world science fiction. Those books normally get too weird for me, to be honest. (Even in Embassytown it still gets weird, and I have absolutely no idea what a Host looks like. I ended up just imagining them like praying mantises and adding eye stalks and other bits when the narration called for them—then I’d go back to my praying mantis model.) But Embassytown kept me interested and engaged. It may have been that there was a lot of linguistics in it (mostly from Avice’s husband, who is a linguist) and I was able to recall the linguistics I studied in college. That probably helped. But Avice kept me rapt. I devoured this book. I thought about it for days afterward (I’m still thinking about it).

The book jacket copy and the Library of Congress information for Embassytown make loyalty out to be one of the main themes of the novel. I didn’t get much of that vibe. Sure, there are little loyalty battles in there, but I didn’t come away from the book aching about loyalty. The ache that I came away with was the idea that change has to happen, progress has to be made, but sometimes what you leave behind is just as valuable as what you’re moving towards. Sometimes you have to leave things behind out of necessity, and what you leave them for may be better in some ways, worse in others, but it’s what you need. And that’s a little sad. Bittersweet enough to make me ache.

I guess that’s probably too hard to fit in Library of Congress filing information. Basically, this book is wonderful. I’ll likely reread it. I feel like I shortchanged everyone involved in its creation because I got it 50% off at the Borders liquidation. And when it comes time to nominate books for the Hugos, this one’s going to be on my mind.

Content warnings: Language, mature themes, sci-fi violence.