Come with me, Zen Starling, she had said. The girl in the red coat. But how did she know his name?
The Great Network is a place of drones and androids, maintenance spiders and Station Angels. The place of the thousand gates, where sentient trains criss-cross the galaxy in a heartbeat.
Zen Starling is a petty thief, a street urchin from Thunder City. So when mysterious stranger Raven sends Zen and his new friend Nova on a mission to infiltrate the Emperor’s train, he jumps at the chance to traverse the Great Network, to cross the galaxy in a heartbeat, to meet interesting people – and to steal their stuff.
But the Great Network is a dangerous place, and Zen has no idea where his journey will take him.
Source: ARC from Oxford Children’s Books via NetGalley
The imagination in this book is phenomenal. The trains, the travel, the monk bugs, the angels, the Guardians, the absolute everything! This book is full of wonders in the same way I’d expect from a fantasy novel, except this is science fiction and also packed with tech, fast-paced action and a handful of characters whose adventures suck you in from the first page and leave you helpless to put it down, like some poor railhead stuck riding the K-Bahn’s forever after.
Zen is not much of a hero – or, rather, he’s not very heroic. He’s a thief, he’s also selfish, self-absorbed and doesn’t really care about anyone except himself. He has a very hardworking older sister and a mother prone to outbreaks of paranoia that saw Zen running from place to place throughout his childhood. He doesn’t think much of his home life and he isn’t fond of his home world, a run down dump at the end of a branch line. The only thing he really likes are the K-trains, great locomotives that can travel vast distances across the galaxy using the K-Bahn gates that somehow pass out of time to skip from one planet to another, countless light years away.
He has no ambitions, no real future, no plans to do anything but keep on thieving for the rest of his life, until Raven finds him and gives him a special mission.
It’s hard not to like Zen, even though he’s not particularly honourable or good. But he is interesting as he tries to work out what Raven really wants, while making unexpected friends with Nova and exploring the unimaginably rich world of the Imperial Noon family. I loved seeing the galaxy through Zen’s eyes, because despite everything he’s not jaded or bored, instead he still recognises wonder when he sees it and knows how to appreciate it. I completely understood his enthusiasm for the locos and the excitement of arriving on new worlds, especially the forgotten ones along the Dog Star Line.
I loved the trains, the sentient locos that are the only things capable of passing through the gates. They each have distinct personalities and stories of their own, especially the sinister Thought Fox. I also really liked the friends Zen encounters on the way, particularly Nova and Flex. Those two added a new dimension to Zen’s world and taught him the most about looking beyond himself, even if he will never be entirely heroic.
The plot moves swiftly, unfolding relevant information only when needed and steadily gathering pace. There were plenty of times when I didn’t have a clue where it was all going to end, and there are plenty of dark surprises amongst the imaginative wonders. The ending itself left me wanting so much more – not least a K-train of my own to explore the galaxy with.
If you’re looking for something overflowing with imagination, full of intriguing characters and a fast-paced, absorbing plot, then this book delivers all of that and more. Which is just what I’d expect from Philip Reeve. Clever and exciting, the only bad thing about it all is that it had to end. I really hope this isn’t the last I’ll see of this amazing galaxy.
Railhead is Out Now!
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