Novellas, as their name attests, are a betwixt and between sort of narrative form. At their most effective, they find the perfect balance between not sacrificing too much in character development or (especially in fantasy/sci-fi) worldbuilding by stopping short of a novel’s typical length and not overly attenuating the impact of a short story by writing past their ending or diluting it with too much physical detail. It’s a fine line to walk, and unfortunately, I can’t say that Guy Haley toes it with any consistent success in The Emperor’s Railroad, leading to a work that has intriguing moments but as a whole falls frustratingly short.
The setting is a bleakly devastated future section of the United States (roughly the Ohio River valley), with most of humanity’s great works and technologies either already disappeared or badly rusting/rotting away and regions devolved into warring, semi-isolated feudal-like fiefdoms, kingdoms, and city-states. Bad enough they fight each other, but there are also the dead to worry about, as some sort of zombie plague has left hordes of ravenous, mindless creatures roaming about. Above all this (though they’re not averse to warring amongst themselves) stand the technologically advanced “Dreaming Cities” and their “Angels,” who seem to watch over all, dispensing rough justice via their Knights (thought there aren’t many of them left) and, in this novella, a “dragon.”
The relatively simple and straightforward plot is a recollected journey taken decades ago by the narrator Abney and his mother from their zombie-destroyed town to another where they have some family, escorted by a knight named Quinn, whom they met shortly after leaving. Between zombies, the dragon that’s been terrorizing an area they must travel through, and predatory and/or fearful/superstitious humans, the way is fraught with danger.
With danger, but not necessarily with too much tension, as thanks to the structure of The Emperor’s Railroad — one long memory — we know that our narrator at least survives. Haley also gives us a few flash-forwards from the time of the action, so we know as well some of the results of the journey beyond Abney’s survival. I think in a longer work, these flash forwards would have been more successful, drawing out the tension of anticipation more than occurs here. Also, a novel might have offered up a bit more of present-day Abney, and so those results of the journey might have resonated more than they do now. I liked the flash-forwards as employed, but they’re an example of that betwixt and between problem of a novella in that they don’t fully mine their potential.
The same holds true for the worldbuilding, much of which is intriguingly teased, but at some point I wanted to be more than teased. Haley has a second novella coming, so it’s obvious we’ll learn more about this world, but I’m not sure I should be required to wait months (let alone make another purchase) to get a somewhat solid grasp of the story’s container/background. As it is, we get mostly names of things, maybe an iota or two more (the cities have more technology, this city-state fought that city-state and lost), but not much more than that. What caused the zombie plague? What are they really (they’re called “the dead” but Quinn, who is clearly more knowledgeable, tells us they’re not really dead)? What/who are the Angels? How much interaction do they have with this world? Why? And the list goes on. If this would have been the opening to a long novel, I probably would have enjoyed the very slow reveal of this world, but as a stand-alone work I found it more than a little frustrating by the end.
I probably would have been less frustrated if I’d had more to hang my hat on with regard to character or plot or style, but while all these are adequate in The Emperor’s Railroad, I wouldn’t call them particularly compelling or strong. Quinn is the typical gruff, taciturn, man-of-action-with-a-past. I’m curious about his past, so Haley does a nice job of intriguing me, but there’s no pay-off. Abney’s mother is a strong woman, but beyond that she’s little noted. Luckily, Abney himself is an engaging voice, particularly in how it moves nicely between an older child’s point of view (he’s twelve during the journey) and the harshly gained wisdom/sadness of his much older self.
Plot, as mentioned, is pretty straightforward. Haley plays with structure a bit, which I normally like, offering up those bits of flash-forwards from our already-having-lived-this narrator or employing a flash-back to what happened to their original home. But it was pretty obvious what had happened, and the details were nothing we’ve not seen before in the horde of zombie, well, hordes, we’ve been subjected to lately, so as with much of the novella, the idea was there but the execution just a little lacking. Stylistically, the prose was fine — clean, clear, effective — but I didn’t find myself lingering over or highlighting any lines or passages. And while I liked Abney’s voice, sometimes the novella fell into too much of a narrative, telling rather than showing.
I didn’t dislike The Emperor’s Railroad. And I never felt any real desire to stop (at not much more than 100 pages it’s a pretty easy one-sitting read). Even better, I’d be interested in picking up the second novella to get more of a sense of this world. But I wish I didn’t need to, and I wish the execution would have fulfilled more of the creative promise.