Friday, February 22, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Round :: Railsea by China Miéville vs. The Express Diaries by Nick Marsh

We continue the first round of Bracket Five of Battle of the Books with Railsea by China Miéville vs. The Express Diaries by Nick Marsh. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Railsea: Del Rey hardcover, May 2012, 424 pages. China Miéville is arguably the most important British fantasist of this generation. His second novel Perdido Street Station largely created the New Weird subgenre. His unclassifiable novel The City and the City won a Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award, among the numerous awards and honors Miéville has received. Just this week, Railsea was nominated for the Andre Norton Award for young adult science fiction and fantasy.

Railsea is an homage to Moby Dick. Instead of a ship hunting whales on the sea, in Railsea the crew of a train hunts giant moles (moldywarpes) through a frozen tundra criss-crossed with rail lines. Already there have been hints that the captain has a vendetta against a particular moldywarpe that took her arm on a previous venture. Our protagonist Sham is the young apprentice of the train's doctor. Sham has no particular interest in medicine, or in very much else. But in the opening 25 pages of the book, Sham thrills to the hunt as his fellow trainsmen successfully pursue a vast moldywarpe.

The Express Diaries: Innsmouth House hardcover, September 2012, 290 pages, cover art by Eric Smith. Nick Marsh is a British veterinary surgeon, who has previously written a fantasy novel called The Ancients, and the first two volumes of a science fiction series, Soul Purpose and Past Tense.

The Express Diaries is an epistolary novel, set in 1925 and told through the characters' respective diaries, as well as news clippings and other documents which we can imagine inserted into the pages of the diaries. The main characters are all friends of the wealthy and eccentric London widow Betty Sunderland. In the opening 25 pages, an acquaintance of theirs is killed for what he knows of a strange artifact called the Sedefkar Simulacrum. Before he dies, he begs the group to find this artifact and destroy it. His notes describe various locations in Europe containing clues or portions of the artifact. Mrs. Sunderland persuades her friends to undertake this quest, traveling via the Orient Express, where we expect most of the story to occur. The premise of The Express Diaries is drawn from the "Horror on the Orient Express" campaign for the Lovecraftian role-playing game Call of Cthulhu.

The Battle: Aside from separating the four "seeded" books into different quarters of the draw, I do the Battle of the Books bracket entirely randomly, yet we repeatedly get interesting matchups. Here, for instance, we have a first-round matchup between two books both set on a train. (We've only had one previous train book in the Battle of the Books, Christopher Fowler's Hell Train, which reached the semifinals of the Spring 2012 Battle.) So far, both Railsea and The Express Diaries have succeeded in interesting me in the trains at the heart of their stories.

The epistolary format of The Express Diaries seems a bit limiting, but Nick Marsh has done a nice job of using the diarists' formal language to contrast with the strangeness of his grotesque imagery, for example when one of the characters reports finding a body that has been entirely skinned. While we haven't yet reached the Orient Express in the first 25 pages, Marsh has effectively suggested what evil and sinister forces await our heroes when they board.

In Railsea, China Miéville employs similarly stilted language, emulating Herman Melville, but still manages to convey Sham's exhilaration in their wild trip across a strange landscape:
Sham was awed at the light. He looked up into the two or more miles of good air, through it into the ugly moiling border of bad cloud that marked the upsky. Bushes stubby & black as iron tore past, & bits of real iron jagging from buried antique times did, too. Atangle across the whole vista, to & past the horizon in all directions, were endless, countless rails.

The railsea.
I confess I have never been a great Herman Melville admirer, but then Melville never made whaling seem so exciting to me as the bizarre moldywarpe hunt at the beginning of Railsea. Nick Marsh hasn't done anything wrong in the opening of The Express Diaries, but he had the misfortune to be paired against one of the very best writers in our field, who has once again created a remarkably original and unique vision, of which I'd like to see more.

THE WINNER: Railsea by China Miéville

Railsea moves into the second round, where it will take on Ghost Key by Trish J. MacGregor.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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