“Railhead” by Philip Reeve

Okay, fun fact about me: I love Philip Reeve. Actually, he’s recently been the subject of a frustrating search for a missing book (long story short, I lost one of the books in a matching set and can’t find that edition anywhere), but other than that, I like him. And that’s hardly his fault. His publishers should just stop REDESIGNING ALL HIS BOOKS ALL THE TIME SO THAT MINE DON’T MATCH.


It was kind of a rite of passage in my family that when you reached a certain age (around nine or ten), you got given a copy of Mortal Engines, usually by my Uncle Andrew. Well, all my uncles are called Andrew, but there we go. It was always the same Uncle Andrew. Just so you’re aware. Because of this we ended up with three copies of the first two books in that series, but given that I LOST MINE ANYWAY and my siblings’ ones didn’t match… ugh. Non-matching Predator’s Gold makes me sad.


So, I’ve been in love with Philip Reeve’s books since then, which meant requesting Railhead on NetGalley was a no-brainer. I’m perpetually surprised when I get approved for books by well-known authors (do they realise how pathetically tiny the audience for my reviews is?) but I was delighted to grab this one.

Publication date: 1st October 2015

Publication date: 1st October 2015

And I loved it.

I LOVE PHILIP REEVE’S WORLDBUILDING. I love, love, love it. He’s just so creative. I don’t even know what goes on in his head, but he comes up with these worlds that are utterly bizarre. Moving cities that hunt other cities. Or, in this instance, TRAINS THAT CAN TRAVEL THROUGH SPACE. Well, through wormholes or something, not literally through the air. THAT WOULD BE SILLY.

Oh, and the trains are kind of alive? And there are robots (called motorik or motos), but not everyone likes them. And, inexplicably, dinosaurs. I have to admit that last one was never explained.

The only other person on the bridge was an old lady walking her miniature triceratops.

Like, dude. Suddenly dinosaurs.

So yeah, the worldbuilding is, as ever, super cool. The characters were too. My favourite was Flex, whom I’ve adopted as my amazingly creative genderfluid robot child. I am a sucker for genderfluid characters, even when they’re not human. I also liked the various nods to gender, like how one character says, “Most people are one or the other, in Cleave.” (Emphasis mine.) I felt like Reeve was really making an effort to be inclusive.

Which he has done before! With Fever Crumb, one of my all-time favourite queer characters. I wrote about that on my main blog when I read Scrivener’s Moon.

Back to Flex, though:

“Why do you keep switching?” he asked. “Male to female, female to male…”
Flex looked up at him and smiled. “Wouldn’t you, if you could?”


Flex paints trains illegally, and because the trains are alive, they let the paint stay and wear it as a badge of pride and I just love everything about that, so I’m not going to say any more in case I ramble forever.

But, on a related note, this book also caused EMOTIONS. Did you guess that because of the capitals? This is a book that makes me talk in capitals. Other books cause emotions, but they’re introspective sads, where I sort of sit around and think about mortality. This book caused the kind of emotions where I made a whimpering noise and then got angry and then may have yelled something unprintable aimed at the author (who should really take it as a compliment).

There are also some really funny moments.

Waiters shrieked at him, but waiters were the least of his worries. What were they going to do? Flap him to death with their napkins?

This is the point where I should probably comment on Zen, our main character. He was pretty cool. He wasn’t annoying, but I also didn’t get nearly as attached to him as I did to Flex. WHAT CAN I SAY. Genderfluid robots can win my heart any day.

And there are some really hilarious names in this.

Oh, and here was their father, Mahalaxmi XXIII, Chief Executive of the Noon Family, Emperor of the Grey Network, Master of the Thousand Gates, known to his adoring subjects as the Father of the Rails and to the less adoring ones as the Fat Controller.

Because of course you couldn’t have a book about living trains without at least one Thomas the Tank Engine reference, am I right?

ANYWAY. I don’t even know what to say about this. It wasn’t perfect (a few plot points seemed underdeveloped, and Zen didn’t seem to care as much about his family as I’d have thought he would), but it was a super fun read anyway, and awesome enough for me to give it five stars despite minor quibbles. It was creative, funny, and exciting.

I’m definitely planning to put it on the list of books to buy for the library, because I can see a lot of our students enjoying this as much as I did. In the meantime, I’m just hoping there’s a sequel. While it works as a standalone, I’d really like to see what happens next.

Rating: *****

Buy Railhead on Amazon (UK)
Buy Railhead on Amazon (US)


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