With a sequel recently out, I thought I would revisit a review of this Philip Reeve novel which was highly regarded both in the UK and across the pond.
From 2017 :
“Thomas and Percy clearly need to dream a bit bigger.” – Mr. Conductor
Rarely does public transportation get to take center stage in a sci-fi story. Yet here ya go! Touted by reviewers as being a ‘good for boys’ book (I guess because Trains?), I caution you not to recommend Railhead to a member of the group just because of their “Y”. It’s a bit of a love story; a bit dystopian universe; a bit epic adventure. Mostly, recommend this because your reader loves YA/Middle years sci-fi, since this is at its essence THAT book.
The world-building here is incredible – sentient trains take passengers between gates and that means between worlds. Our main character is a bit less desirable as a role model (being a thief and all) but carries us on the journey he takes, trying to understand the origin of the traveling beasts and how to crack their code, secrets supposedly lost. Because of the mix of sci-fi, fantasy, and steampunk, this becomes an unpredictable story in an unpredictable universe.
The language is not overly complex and the author provides (at least in the Kindle version) a nice glossary of invented terms. Although the book was first published in the US, it doesn’t surprise that the author is British and clearly a lover of trains. While I can agree with Lexile’s label of 850, I think their 14-18 age range is ambitious. I would expect a 12 year old to handle this book well if they read at grade level and enjoyed the genre. The author is respectful of his audience and despite the genre has mostly non-graphic descriptions of violence and romance. I think a 16+ would expect more in both areas and might find the development shallow in the lacking of such.
Railhead has the distinction of being a shortlisted nominee for the UK’s CILIP Carnegie Medal (think Newbery with a cool, mental accent) and I can see why.
3 for reading it all the way through, though not in one sitting
4 for story arc which was vibrant and exciting, only marred by the theft trope in my opinion
4 for expanding my horizons as I did want to learn more about the author and his other works
5 for humor/cleverness particularly in the world building. It is really incredible in scope and idea. I am looking forward to learning more in the second book.
4 for voice. The author has IT. But the characters were not as compelling as the world.
Buy Railhead here.… or check it out from the Library.