RailHead by Philip Reeve

Cover art by Ian McQue

Recording my thoughts on this book five years after its initial publication feels very much like I’m preaching to the converted. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’re already a fan of Philip Reeve’s wonderful writing and are looking to see if I concur with your opinions.

I do.

I read the Mortal Engines series when they first came out and then went onto the Fever Crumb trilogy and Larklight but with the number of fantastic children’s authors and their books seeming to increase exponentially over the past few years, failed to read this until now. It appears that that was a big mistake; one which I am delighted to have resolved.

As we dive into the story, we find our protagonist Zen Starling being chased by a drone after stealing a necklace. As he flees, he passes a mysterious girl who knows his name before escaping on a train and passing through a K-gate: a portal to another world. On reaching his destination, he alights and makes his way to Uncle Bugs’s grubby backstreet shop where he sells his loot before returning home. It is here that the strange girl catches back up with him and after climbing out of a window to escape her attentions he makes his way back to the railway station only to be intercepted there by Captain Malik – a Railforce employee whose wartrain pulls in as Zen is arriving.

Malik too knows Zen’s name and asks him about an individual called Raven to whom the girl belongs, being in fact not human but an AI robot. Refusing to believe that Zen knows neither Raven nor the girl, Malik orders a truth serum to be administered only for the girl – who identifies herself to Zen as Nova – to disrupt the train’s systems and rescue him.

Making their way from the scene to a now redundant part of the station, Nova leads Zen to meet Raven whose personal train carries them all to safety. While Zen does not know Raven, Raven seems to know a huge amount about Zen and offers him the opportunity to carry out a daring robbery in return for which he will be rewarded with enough wealth to want for nothing and, more importantly, afford medical treatment for his sick mother. Accepting Raven’s proposal sets in motion a series of events that will change both Zen’s life and the worlds he inhabits forever.

To me, what sets the author’s work above others is the balance between the complexity of the worlds he creates and the mundane, recognisable day-to-day existence with which we are all familiar. In creating the fantastical details that he does, he makes them credible so that sentient trains, gender-fluid androids and insects who can organise themselves into colonies which mimic human behaviours seem perfectly normal. Alongside all of the futuristic technology there are also some very human power struggles reminiscent of those which seem to regularly crop up in human history, reminding me of the Claudius books by Robert Graves. Several of the characters within the story are also crafted in such a way that one minute you are convinced they have one agenda and the next another, leaving you guessing about how the book will conclude right up until the final chapter and unable to put the book down because you have to know what happens.

I often find myself emotionally involved with characters – I think it’s human nature to root for the ‘good guys’ – but as the relationship between Zen and Nova deepened I found myself hoping that she would become more than just his guide and supervisor on their mission to carry out the theft on Raven’s behalf. I don’t want to include any spoilers here but I think it’s fair to say that there were several points in the book where my frustrations at Philip Reeve’s plot’s twists and turns had me thinking, ‘How could you?!’

It goes without saying that I absolutely loved this book and I am very much looking forward to reading Black Light Express, the second in the trilogy. I will be adding this to my little library in class – I think there are one or two of my Year 5s who would enjoy this now and to whom I would recommend it once they return in Year 6. 5 out of 5 stars.

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