There‚Äôs something immediately striking, and immediately annoying, about Railsea: In China Mi√©ville‚Äôs second young-adult novel (and ninth novel overall), every appearance of the word ‚Äúand‚ÄĚ has been replaced with an ampersand. At first, it seems like a mere affectation; after all, Mi√©ville‚Äôs first YA novel, Un Lun Dun, revels in wordplay. But halfway through Railsea, just as all those &s start to become invisible, Mi√©ville drags the ampersand front and center. In a move that‚Äôs both profound and cheekily self-referential, the book addresses the reader directly‚ÄĒand pierces the fourth wall with a startling, deeply resonant reason behind the typographical quirk.

That isn‚Äôt Railsea‚Äôs only meta moment. The text frequently references itself, and at several points even pokes fun at its own clumsy juggling of plot threads‚ÄĒa valid observation made maddening by the fact that Mi√©ville chooses to joke about it rather than fix it. At least the ampersand revelation ties into the guts of the book‚Äôs premise: In a world that‚Äôs been rendered a vast, railroad-scabbed desert, a young doctor‚Äôs assistant named Sham ap Soorap serves on a moletrain‚ÄĒthe equivalent of a 19th-century whaleship, only it hunts giant moles that burrow underneath the desert. Then again, Mi√©ville‚Äôs premises always revolve around his settings, from the superimposed city-states of The City & The City to the steampunk metropolis of New Crobuzon, the nucleus of his Bas-Lag series. Theoretically, Railsea‚Äôs titular desert could exist in the same universe as any of these settings. The parallels are numerous; there‚Äôs even a place in Railsea called Scabbling Street Market that begs to be compared to Mi√©ville‚Äôs own Perdido Street Station.

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Besides drawing from his past work, Mi√©ville scavenges liberally and openly from Moby-Dick‚ÄĒparticularly in regard to Sham‚Äôs boss, Captain Naphi, a woman driven to hunt a great, ‚Äúold-tooth-colored‚ÄĚ mole named Mocker-Jack. Again, Railsea gets dizzily self-referential; moletrain skippers like Naphi call the moles they pursue ‚Äúsymbols,‚ÄĚ and they call their obsessions ‚Äúphilosophies.‚ÄĚ Mi√©ville presents many text-scratchers such as this throughout Railsea, most of them downright enticing. But he rarely carries through with them in a satisfying way, apparently more content with lumping together a hodgepodge of heady ideas into a teetering conceptual jumble. The ending of the book not only fails to resolve that jumble, it piles on layer after layer of metaphysical bombshell, giving little time or space for them to work their wonders.

To his credit, Mi√©ville crafts one of his most compelling characters in the hesitant, compassionate, idealistic Sham, and the lean plot is one of his tightest. Even his prose‚ÄĒoften dense to the point of impenetrability‚ÄĒis swift and absorbing, though it‚Äôs littered with a profusion of eye-crossing portmanteaus particular to Railsea‚Äôs world. But it fits: The ethic of salvage, which Sham‚Äôs entire culture runs on, carries over to its language. And especially Sham‚Äôs own idiosyncratic vernacular. His dream, above all, is to leave the moletrain and become a salvor himself‚ÄĒsomeone who scours the treacherous railsea for bits of technology left from a halcyon age, when his world was a layover (and a dumping ground) for extraterrestrial traffic. Mi√©ville manages to weld a rich science-fiction concept to influences like Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson (yes, there are pirates; how could there not be?), and the result is both brainy and thrilling. If only he‚Äôd stopped less to comment on his own cleverness along the way.