Review by Christopher Owen. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.
Nominated for the Carnegie Medal and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, Railhead and its sequel, Black Light Express, are set in a future where sentient trains travel the galaxy. The Great Network is an intergalactic railroad that connects planets across the universe through mysterious portals. It is controlled by the rich, and obsessed over by railheads, riders who travel for no reason other than to see strange and distant planets. Zen Starling is a railhead.
Zen Starling is a thief. With a sick mother and an overworked sister, Zen steals so they can afford to survive. But he also does it for the adventure, hopping trains to escape the law and travel the universe in the process. When a mysterious stranger named Raven approaches Zen and offers to pay him a fortune to steal a mysterious box from the Emperor, Zen agrees to pose as a distant relative of the Emperor’s large family and board the Emperor’s train. He is accompanied by a motorik, a humanoid robot, named Nova, and on the train he befriends the Emperor’s daughter, Threnody Noon. After a series of mistakes, Zen and Nova are forced to destroy the Emperor’s train, killing many (including the Emperor himself) and fleeing as terrorist outlaws.
Their adventures lead them to the answers of the secret history of the K-gates, the portals that allow the trains to travel across the universe. It is a widely held belief that the K-gates were built by the Guardians, Artificial Intelligence so powerful that they became like gods, worshipped by humanity through digital prayers. But the Guardians are hiding the true origins of the K-gates, and Raven knows that the answer lies with the mysterious box Zen has stolen for him.
Meanwhile, Rail Marshal Lyssa Delius has decided that Threnody Noon will be the next Empress. But Lyssa Delius fully intends to control Threnody, and in turn the Great Network. This sets off a civil war, causing Threnody and her criminal servant Chandni Hansa to flee into hiding and inadvertently join Zen and Nova on their adventures to learn the truth about the origins of their intergalactic society.
The two novels feature imaginative world building with fascinating societies, complex systems of power and intriguing characters. The majority of characters are people of colour, and several protagonists are queer, including a gender non-conforming robot, a gay soldier and an asexual criminal. The borders between who is a human, who is a machine and who is a god are played with in a society that is as diverse as it is oppressive.
The first novel, Railhead, is set in a universe in which a complex and unfair system of power pervades in the background of a thrilling adventure set on several different planets. The characters are well developed and interesting, and the story takes many surprising twists and turns. While it is unfortunate the book features the tired trope of a human boy falling in love with a robot girl, the book otherwise features some really unique and interesting characteristics in a richly imagined universe.
Unfortunately, the sequel, Black Light Express, falls off the rails. This book really wants to be two books. The plot is unfocussed with a disconnecting structure. The ending feels incredibly rushed, and instead of tackling the system of power in a nuanced way, the story takes an easy and violent out that leaves several social issues unresolved.
Railhead deserves all of its praise and award nominations, but its sequel, Black Light Express, is rather disappointing. Yet both books feature diverse characters, exciting adventures, and strange new worlds, demonstrating Philip Reeve’s famous imagination.
Copyright Christopher Owen. All rights reserved