Traveller between worlds

The Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Photo credit: Union Pacific Museum
Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Credit: Union Pacific Museum

Philip Reeve Railhead
Oxford University Press 2016 (2015)

Imagine yourself at the end of the second millennium. Or maybe a lot later. Everything around then would be unimaginable, right? Just like our current world would be unimaginable to anyone living under Norman or Plantagenet rule if they were plucked from their time into ours. But some things would be similar, surely? Perhaps the romantic appeal of train locomotives would somehow allow these machines to linger in some form, graffiti art still plastering the sides of engines and carriages, but maybe they’d have some kind of personality hardwired in. And people would still love train travel so much that, like petrolheads with cars today, they would be known as railheads.

This is just what Philip Reeve has concocted in the first of a new series of novels. Here he has trains taking on a similar nostalgia mantle with which his traction cities and airships were clothed for his earlier sequence, the wonderful future steampunk series beginning with Mortal Engines. As with Mortal Engines and its prequels he plays with themes exploring whether artificial intelligence can ever develop human qualities such as empathy, loyalty and even love. It is to his credit that, however preposterous his concepts might seem when baldly spelled out, he nevertheless manages to create a credible universe to house them, with enough back references to our own times to lever our suspended disbelief into this future dystopian cosmos.

Zen Starling is his main protagonist, a young thief in some outlying planet who has a background heritage he knows nothing about. He is a railhead who uses the trains that travel from world to world through K-gates, portals of mysterious origin which have sowed the seeds of planetary colonisation without the necessity of employing laggard near-light-speed spaceships. But when he finds himself tailed by drones and an android-type female motorik called Nova, and when after meeting a figure called Raven he is drawn into a conspiracy he can scarcely guess at, Zen has to call on all his resources as thief and doppelgänger to save both himself and the universe he inhabits.

This is a breathless ride of a story, far too rich in details to dare to outline all its various strands, with far too much integrity to characterise individuals as merely good or evil and a great many insights into what being human might really mean in our distant future. As with many novelists Reeve uses words and names as ciphers to link memes and past history to his vision. Starlings are gaudy noisy creatures, curious and resourceful, while ravens prey on rotting carrion — it’s not therefore a coincidence that Zen and his dubious mentor have bird names. And Zen’s first name? Perhaps this is less a reference to a Buddhist school of thought then to two Venetian brothers with the surname of Zen or Zeno who, it was claimed, had in the 14th century discovered several non-existent islands in the Atlantic as well as the North American mainland; as a fictive traveller between worlds Zen is an entirely appropriate name.

And these names are only a start: ray guns, for example, aren’t just futuristic weapons of early 20th-century pulp science fiction but guns that kill giant manta rays … which fly. In fact, there seem to be few boundaries to Reeve’s inventiveness with notions and names.

This too is an enjoyable science fantasy which mixes in so many memes so cunningly that we’re scarcely aware of (or care) that he’s serving up a quest theme, a Golden Age myth, a Chosen One trope, a platter of select Basic Plots, and so on. If you’ve read China Miéville’s Railsea you may like this too, though the settings and the literary influences go in completely different directions. And what adds to the delight is that this is going to be the first in a series, with the first sequel Black Light Express already published in hardback.

… ((•)) …

An excellent overview of Railhead by Jake is on ( It includes suggested soundtracks on Spotify ranging from Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers, from Vangelis to Orbital, and from Goldie to Bowie. Some great illustrations are featured here too, by Robert Ball, Jaguar Lee, Will Kirkby, Jonathan Edwards and Ian McQue — work by the last artist is also featured on the outside and inside covers of the paperback edition.


4 thoughts on “Traveller between worlds

  1. Although I’ve yet to read his Mortal Engines quartet, the Philip Reeve books I have read are wonderful. Have you read Here Lies Arthur? – his unique take on Merlin is one of my all time favourite YA novels. I couldn’t resist buying this book though and it looks like I’m in for a treat – with a sequel already out to follow.

    1. Yes, I reviewed his Arthur book here ( and was pleasantly surprised, as I’ve read no end of turkeys in Arthurian fiction; this one won the Smarties prize I think. I hope you enjoy Railhead as well, Annabel — even the paperback has some visual delights (presumably in the hardback too), a detail which I must add to my review above.

      Oh, and do follow this with the Mortal Engines books — I intend to get through as many as possible in my 2017 rereads!

  2. Lynn Love

    This sounds very good, Chris. Though I’ve not read any of Reeve’s books I clearly should – sounds like he has the kind of imagination that woukd appeal to me 🙂

    1. Although clearly aimed at the YA market it should still appeal to us oldies, Lynn! As your fiction pieces have elements from several genres this could be right up your street, with its strands of science fantasy, thriller, teenage romance, tragedy, cyberpunk …

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