The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Hailey
I read this novella by Guy Hailey being completely unfamiliar with his writing style or his previous works. On reflection, while novellas can help introduce you to an author and their style, I don’t think this is a particularly good way to get into this author (especially if you love long novels and series). There’s no previous works of his that this novella made me want to read. If you’re a novella person, this is a quick read, and if you’re already familiar with the author, you’ll probably like it more than I did. The Emperor’s Railroad is the first in the Dreaming Cities series, and if it’s a series of novellas, and you like this story, this might be a series that’s worth your time. The description of the world sounded amazing, which is what drew me to it.
Global war devastated the environment, a zombie-like plague wiped out much of humanity, and civilization as we once understood it came to a standstill. But that was a thousand years ago, and the world is now a very different place.
Conflict between city states is constant, superstition is rife, and machine relics, mutant creatures and resurrected prehistoric beasts trouble the land. Watching over all are the silent Dreaming Cities. Homes of the angels, bastion outposts of heaven on Earth. Or so the church claims. Very few go in, and nobody ever comes out.
Zombies! Futuristic fantasy wars! Mutants! Dragons! The world building in this novel doesn’t disappoint. The zombie apocalypse reminded me of World War Z, which I loved. The invasion of New Karlsville scarred and shocked me, and felt like a vignette out of World War Z with a fantasy twist. This was the strongest aspect of the novella for me. This scene was genuinely scary and impactful, and I wish the novella would’ve opened with this instead because it would’ve roped me into the story faster. Instead, we’re introduced to Quinn as this ultra-badass, and I kind of hate when a non-POV character is heralded as such a badass immediately. It takes time to establish awesome characters are awesome and don’t just tell me this guy is awesome–I have to come to believe it for myself by the character’s actions. I was never as in awe of Quinn as the narrator, 12 year old Abney. That’s probably intentional, but this story is notably better once the focus shifts from how awesome knight Quinn is to the stakes of Abney and his mom attempting to resettle after the New Karlsville disaster.
Unfortunately, like with many novellas, I always feel like I’m in the middle of a story that feels half-baked. There’s a lot of world building that’s vague, and no amount of connecting with the characters or potential coolness of the world could eliminate this feeling of being unmoored for me. There’s also an incongruous aspect to this novella: Abney is a 12-year old protagonist, which really works for introducing us to this futuristic world. However, this is another narrative retelling, where we’re being told about Abney’s journey from New Karlsville to Winfort by the older Abney that already made the journey. Older Abney, presumably, should’ve known more about the world than 12-year old Abney, but we’re never given this perspective. It gives the world building a bait-and-switch feel where a lot of information is purposefully kept from us by the narrator and characters in story.
Because this novella was short and a quick read, I don’t have any real notes on it. Instead, I have a major complaint about the overall production of the novella. Being that this is the ‘notes’ section, you’re free to agree or disagree, but it’s how this novella is positioned within a series that ultimately broke my engagement with it, not anything in particular to do with the writing or the characters or the admittedly amazing setting. The Emperor’s Railroad is listed as a Dreaming Cities story. I went looking for more Dreaming Cities books to see if this was a story about a side character in a larger series. If there had been preexisting, full length novels about the angels and the wars between the dreaming cities and the emperor, I would’ve read them. I felt like I was missing SO MUCH backstory, and I was freaking sick of being teased about it by the end of the novella. I wanted that story. This novella? It’s not that story. It’s not even a companion to that story. This is supposed to be the first in a series, which is why the world building teased me so much, but it should’ve been an entire novel. Maybe not this individual tale of Abney and his mom, but it’s a good side-character vignette, world-expansion novella for an already established series. This novella didn’t make me want to continue reading this series because I didn’t care about Quinn and all his mysteries because the story wasn’t about those.
Rating: 3 stars
There is a lot of strong aspects to this story, and it’s ultimately a captivating and well-done vignette. If it would’ve been a companion novella to an additional series, I would’ve given that series a try. As a part one in a new series? I’m not sure this works as that. Does it intrigue? Yes, but this story referenced events that we had no idea about–and that we weren’t going to learn the full meanings of in this novella. It’s a testament to how well-done the overall work is that this didn’t make me rage quit, but this world is well-developed and frustratingly under explained and under explored.
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