I am not a big fan of the past several years’ glut of YA fiction. Given that adults are the primary consumers, I see it largely as another symptom of the continued dumbing down of culture; “It’s ok, it’s YA” is the reason offered when confronted with what is often very formulaic material. (And all this is without discussing the glut of YA fiction called ‘adult’ simply because of bad language and/or sex.) This is not to say everyone who reads YA fiction is juvenile, only that it’s a rare sight on the web that an adult reviews a work of YA fiction as such, rather than as any other piece of ‘adult’ fiction they read. But there remain some really good YA titles on the market—Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… series, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, and Diane Wynne Jones glorious Howl’s Moving Castle among them. Not quite making this list (but almost) is Philip Reeve’s 2015 Railhead.
A ripping boys’ adventure, Railhead is the story of Zen Starlight. Teenager living on a planet at the end of the line, he spends his days in petty thievery and riding k-trains that travel point-to-point instantaneously across the galaxy. One day, after stealing a gold necklace from a street vendor, he notices that a girl and her drone are following him. Giving them the slip at the k-train station, it’s even stranger when they turn up at his house the next day, asking questions. Thinking they work for the street vendor, Zen flees his house and heads to the fence where he sold the necklace to get it back. But when the police nab him and demand to know where the girl with the drone is, things get hectic. Pulled inescapably into an exploit he’d rather have avoided, Zen is quickly in over his head as the shadowy leader of an underground resistance group wants him to commit an extreme crime.
Somewhere in the liminal area between cyberpunk and far-future science fiction, Railhead contains enough gritty elements (the urban poor, the politically oppressed, mind uploads, etc.) and big-picture elements (populated galaxy, hive minds, instantaneous space travel, emperor of the universe, etc.) for both to apply. Another combination Reeve utilizes is the idea of Iain Banks’ mind-ships imposed upon sentient trains—a Culture dream by Rev. W. Audry. Possessing strange names, the trains of Railhead are as much secondary characters as are the other people Zen meets in his adventures, and play a big role in managing the Emperor’s galactic empire—both above and below ground.
What most contemporary YA novels feature, so too does Railhead. Zen’s adventures on the trains and settled planets of the universe are the focus of the fun, but alongside him is a teenage girl named Nova, and the development of their relationship forms a key part of the story. Of course love, unrequited love, or unresolved love are the only three possible notes their relationship can end on upon the conclusion of the novel, Reeve nevertheless pushes ahead with aplomb. And if there is an emperor, then it’s likewise inevitable that Zen somehow gets bound up in royal affairs. And he does. His street cred clashing and conforming in expected ways with the nobility, a couple of the secondary characters—would-be princesses and dukes—likewise have key roles as secondary characters, portions of the narrative focused only on them and their role in the story. And lastly, Zen’s choices increasingly come to have the weight of people’s lives behind them, which gives meaning to the word responsibility. If there is anywhere a checklist of things YA novels should contain, Reeve has selected a few of the key items and developed them in relevant fashion.
In the end, Railhead is the type of boy’s adventure that I wish I had available to read when I was a young. Reeve balancing story elements well (setting, character, background, and plot are all tight, focused, and synthesized), it is fast-paced story on an Earth scattered to the stars by instantaneous point-to-point train travel. Not really anything new at a basic YA level, a young hero is caught up in matters over his head and must figure things out, avoid danger, handle cool gadgets, learn about love, make friends, and ultimately, grow up, nevertheless, those are the things that make good YA, and Reeve has melded them into a fun setting. Things are left open for a sequel, but Railhead reads fine on its own.