Petty thief, Zen Starling, is recruited by the mysterious Raven to trick his way on board a prestigious and heavily-guarded train to steal a valuable work of art in this futuristic sci-fi thriller.
This a world where the train are intelligent and the way to move between the universe’s habitable planets.
‘You step aboard a train, and the train goes through a K-gate, and you step off on another planet, and the sun that was shining on you a moment ago is now just on of those tiny stars in the sky. It might take ten thousand years to travel that far by spaceship, but a K-train makes the jump in seconds. You can’t walk through those gates, or drive through in a car. Rocket and bullets and torch beams and radio waves can’t make the crossing. Only trains can ride the K-bahn.’
It’s a dangerous mission for Zen to con his way onto the private train of the family who runs the network, but he soon suspects that there is a much bigger plan at stake and that his benefactor, Raven, isn’t simply after an ancient piece of art.
Together with the Motorik robot, Nova, sent to help him, Zen gets a glimpse of life beyond the dirty moon of Ambersai where he was brought up and things are complicated further when he forges a close relationship with the powerful family as he works out how to steal from them.
This is an imaginative choice for the Carnegie shortlist, the one that stands out for being a work of a big ideas, a terrific pacy thriller and a mindblowing vision of a life in the future.
Some of the set action pieces are breathtakingly described as the reader is transported to a world where not only trains and stations are crucial parts of the world, but where insects use their hive mind to imitate humans and where robots are used widely yet treated badly and taken for granted.
Zen is an engaging character who is easy to like, charming and confident, but soon out of his depth when he realises his enigmatic new boss, the powerful Raven, might be a very bad guy to be working for. Things get more complicated as he starts to get to know and to be accepted by the Emperor’s family whom he is going to rob.
But the best thing about this energetic and fast-moving narrative is the full force of the imaginative story-telling power Philip Reeve unleashes on the reader.
The technological world-building and the wonder and scope of other worlds make for a vivid, engrossing read. The relationships between the humans and robots, the trains being characters in their own right and the deceptive undercurrent of the Guardians (or Gods) weaves an enthralling and satisfying emotional layer through the story.
A marvellous piece of storytelling.