Reposting to include Rebecca’s new review.
With Station Zero (2019), Philip Reeve brings to an end the RAILHEAD trilogy begun with Railhead and Black Light Express, and if it’s not a perfect conclusion, it’s pretty darn close, leaving you at the end with a sense of satisfying, even gratifying, resolution tinged with a lingering bittersweetness that makes the final result all the more richly rewarding. With this Cosmic Railroad trilogy (not an official title) and his earlier PREDATOR CITIES/MORTAL ENGINES work, Reeve has served up three of the most inventive and compulsively readable YA series of the past decade or two.
The startlingly original premise of his earlier series was the idea of “traction cities” that gobble up smaller ones, a municipal survival of the fittest world. Here, the core idea, just as wonderfully fantastical, is a network of sentient AI trains crisscrossing the universe on tracks that run through K-gates leading to other worlds (warning, some inevitable spoilers for books one and two coming). In the first two books, we learned that humanity had not, as they’d long believed, built the network themselves. Instead, it was a mysterious powerful figure known only as the Railmaker, whose motivation for creating the railways remains unknown. Also revealed was that the Railmaker was destroyed and his gates connecting the human part of the network to alien sectors was shut down by super-AIs called Guardians, who were following their ages-old prime directive to protect and guard humanity against perceived threats, which they believed unfettered access to other worlds and races to be. At the end of Black Light Express, a young thief/railhead named Zen and a “moto” (sentient android) named Nova open up a line to the alien part of the network and Nova heads into the Black Zone to seek the Railmaker, or at least knowledge of it. Along the way, the Network Empire controlling the lines split, with two different Corporate Families each controlling half the network. One of those rulers is Empress Threnody Noon, a quasi-friend of Zen’s (at least, they adventured together if not always aligned) who controls the side connected to the alien worlds.
At the start of Station Zero, an uneasy peace holds between Threnody and Emperor Elon Prell, who controls the other half of the Network. Prell is a xenophobe who believes contact with alien races will destroy humanity, and he desires nothing so much as to send his wartrains into Threnody’s territory to kill her, unify the Empire again, and destroy the newly opened gates to non-human space. All he needs is permission of the Guardians, but there is disagreement amongst them as to the correct path to take and so for now, Prell can only wait and pretend to negotiate for lasting peace with Threnody, who agrees to meet him for that purpose. Meanwhile, Zen has received a message from Nova, and after managing to escape from Threnody’s watchful security, he reunites with Nova, who tells him she thinks she’s figured out that the Railmaker is not actually destroyed and that the two of them may be able to bring it back, though both the Prell Empire and the Guardians stand in their way.
The plot, as is typical of a Reeve novel, moves along quickly, never flagging and always with an excellent sense of balance between action scenes and quieter, character-driven moments. The chases, fights, battles, escapes, tense standoffs and sneak-ins that pepper Station Zero never go on too long (say, like a movie car chase often does), while the more intimate moments between characters, or within a character during a moment of introspection, similarly are just as long as they need to be without bogging the story down. In addition, Reeve offers up a few nice twists, probably more so for the YA audience than adults, though they aren’t any less entertaining or moving for maybe being seen in advance.
The characters, whether they be human (Zen and Threnody), motorik (Nova and Flex), or train (Ghost Wolf and Damask Rose) present themselves as fully fleshed out (only the first two literally) creations, complex and complicated, flawed and inspiring. Reeve doesn’t present his protagonists as simply “good.” More than a few times I winced at an action performed by one of these characters. (Seriously. I actually winced. Even recoiled from the book at one point.) Nor does Reeve let characters off the hook for past actions. Zen’s involvement earlier in the series in the crash of a train that killed the train itself and a number of people haunts him — both his nightmares and his decisions, and when, at one point, he thinks, “’I’m going to die here,’ but it didn’t matter, because he knew he deserved to die. He had known it since the Noon train died on Spindlebridge. He would die here doing this … and that would pay the debt he owed,” it’s absolutely heartbreaking. That same emotional weight bears down on the reader as well with regard to the love between Zen and Nova across multiple scenes for multiple reasons. And when I refer to the trains as “characters,” I’m not exaggerating. Several of the most moving moments involve only trains, which tells you something about Reeve’s skills as an author of the fantastic.
Beyond plot and character, however, one of my favorite aspects of this series is its willingness to confront big ideas, some of which are all too timely. I’ve already mentioned Prell’s xenophobia, which is contrasted by Threnody’s desire to open humanity’s universe. Here, for example, is a scene of Threnody walking a neighborhood that had seen an influx of aliens as tourists, entrepreneurs, traders, and émigrés, followed by Prell’s point of view in the mouth of a Joe Average guy Zen meets:
What Zen Starling had told her was true: Motorik were people every bit as much as humans were. And aliens are people too, she thought, looking form the placid Motorik who walked beside her to all the weird passers-by. A party of the Ones Who Remember the Sea flowed across the street … on their land-adapted tentacles … A small colony of Hath had planted themselves in the shallows, membranes spread to catch the night breeze … along the beach, wormlike Chmoii danced like the diagrams of complicated knots.
Everywhere will be like this one day, Threnody thought … Chmoii and Herastec would be as common everywhere as humans and Motorik … That was what made it so important that the Noons … did not let Elon Prell roll in and shut humans off from their alien neighbors again … Threnody was enchanted by the night.
“All those aliens they got pouring through the K-gate … Those stupid Noons’ll end up letting loose a plague or an invasion.”
Hard not to read those lines and not hear their echo in our own current debate over immigrants and refugees, or in other scenes, similar parallels involving debates over gender or sexuality. Reeve’s answer to this fear of the other is all the ways in which he presents different types, whether they be aliens, robots, or trains, as all engagingly, understandably, movingly “human,” our differences merely cosmetic trivialities.
Or maybe, our differences are merely washed out in the flood of all the different ways we have of being even ourselves. It’s almost a cliché to say of a YA book that the goal of the protagonist is to “find themselves.” But Reeve eschews the tritely familiar here, because he calls into the question the idea of a single “self.” Or as Nova puts it.
Human beings live loads of different lives at once. They always have. One life in the real world and the others in daydreams, in memories, in stories, in games. Lots of lives all going on all at once, and all of them real in some way or other. You humans have so many different versions of yourself, it’s all us poor machines can do to keep up with you.
That’s a nicely heady thought in a YA space opera. Though of course, this being sci-fi/fantasy, it doesn’t have to only be in the head, but instead, because the abstract/metaphor can become literal in this genre, the concept can present itself to the reader in all sorts of wonderfully inventive, fantastical, and above all entertaining ways.
I did mention at the start that Station Zero wasn’t quite “perfect,” so I’ll just note a few minor issues. One is that the book is less expansive than the others, and so we see fewer alien worlds or aliens themselves, truly a loss given how richly original they were in the earlier books. A few characters and plotlines get some short shrift, such as Emperor Elon or a captured Krait warrior (the Krait were the fierce alien antagonists the humans warred with in the prior novel). And the bittersweetness of some of the storyline is perhaps too quickly, well, sweetened, at the end. But these were as mentioned relatively minor complaints and were certainly outweighed by the book’s many strengths. Strengths which carry through the entire trilogy, making it easy to highly recommend this series.
The third and final book in Philip Reeve’s RAILHEAD trilogy is everything you could want from a conclusion: it wraps up the character arcs, answers the biggest plot questions while still leaving a few things ambiguous, and ends on a satisfactory bittersweet note.
I would definitely advise reading Railhead and Black Light Express before Station Zero, as by this point Philip Reeves’s story and world-building is as complex as it is fascinating. In a galaxy where people can travel from one planet to another by use of a railway network (known as the K-bahn) upon sentient locomotives that sing to one another, young thief Zen Starling and Motorik Nova have pulled off the impossible.
Together they’ve expanded the K-bahn beyond the known galaxy and into a brand new one, opening trade and communication with a range of new alien species, and proving that the power of the Guardians — artificial intelligences that operate like god-like beings — aren’t infallible.
But after their grand adventure, the two parted ways: Nova to go deeper into the mysterious reaches of the Black Light Zone to seek out more answers, and Zen to return to his home and family in the Network Empire.
A year has passed, and Zen is already bored with a life of ease and luxury. He misses Nova and he misses the unknown, so naturally he leaps at the chance to see her again when a mysterious message advises him to take a train to unfamiliar coordinates. But the Guardians and the powerful corporate families (namely the usurped Noon family and the conquering Prells) have their eyes on Zen, knowing that he could easily overturn the belief-systems and hierarchies that keep them all in power.
Threnody Noon is also back as the young deposed Empress that escaped with her life when the Prells took over, and who remains the head of her corporate family. With a monopoly on the K-gates that bring all sorts of alien life-forms into the Network Empire, she’s slowly but surely gathering the allies she needs in order to take back the Empire, though it’ll cost her plenty when it comes to her moral compass.
Despite the surprising twists in character arcs and Station Zero’s beautifully structured plot, the real joy of Reeves’s Railhead trilogy has always been the world-building. Reeve has the incredible gift of prose and exposition that flows like water, effortlessly bringing the strangest and most elaborate ideas to life on the page.
He also finds the time to explore philosophical issues, such as the nature of identity (if Nova downloads her personality into hundreds of different bodies, then are any of them the “real” Nova?), religion (if you upload enough aspects of your life into cyberspace, will you go on living after death?) and morality (how far can you go in fighting your enemies before you’re just as bad as they are?)
Some of this might be considered too heavy for younger readers, but hey — I love any book that isn’t afraid to ask the big questions, even if it’s not certain of the answers.
If you love the strangeness and beauty of imagined worlds like those found in Star Wars and Avatar: The Last Airbender, then there’s plenty to delight you in these pages. I just wish he was more recognised as an incredible writer for young people.