Review: The Emperor's Railroad by Guy Haley

Posted by DarkChaplain at 5/08/2016
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.

Until now…
Starting in January 2016, I went on a bit of a novella-binge. I picked up a bunch of them, and found some gems in the process. The Emperor's Railroad is one of those.
The Story:
"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.
Until now…"
Disclaimer
I received an ARC for this novella from the publisher. However, I had already preordered a copy the moment I saw it, back in October 2015, long before I was approached by Tor. Make of that what you will.

The Review
The Emperor's Railroad is a science fantasy novella set in a post-apocalyptic future. Mankind has declined, and the cities and technologies of old are in ruins and forbidden. Angels govern the world from their Dreaming Cities, fickle in their attentions and approval.
The knights of the Dreaming Cities are nigh extinct, and the works of the Gone Before humbling reminders of God's wrath. Myth and technology mix into one as humanity stumbles onwards, dogged by the living dead and worse, ever fearful of the punishment of their angels.

In this restless time, Abney, a twelve year old boy (and the story's narrator, albeit with the benefit of old age and the wisdom that comes with it), and his mother make their way across the kingdom, escaping from a small town recently overrun by the undead plague. Abney's mother plans to meet with a relative in the town of Winfort, to secure her family's wellbeing.
They soon meet Quinn, a knight of the Dreaming Cities, who strikes a deal with the boy's mother to take them to their destination. Their way leads them along the old Emperor's Railroad, which, for all its might, pales in comparison to the wonders of the Gone Before.

During their days of travel, the trio encounter the undead and cutthroats alike, and risk venturing into the territory of the dragon, bane of the old Emperor, punishment sent by the angels of Pittsburgh after their war with their counterparts in Columbus, which left the latter devastated.
Things are really not looking up for mankind in this version of the future!

I've got to say, I absolutely loved the eccentric, down to earth first person narrative from the moment I read an excerpt a couple of months back. Abney's account of the events is wonderfully commentated, full of introspection and a tone that makes you feel like you are sitting right with him as his audience. At times stern and preachy, at others emotional, and whimsical at yet others, it drew me in and made me forget the world beyond the screen of my eReader.

And then there was Quinn, with his pair of swords and handgun at his hips. Enigmatic yet easy to like, the man made for a strong character to lead mother and son through the wilderness, giving commentary and explanations about the world they inhabit along the way. While many questions about him are left open by the end of the novella, I never felt like he was out of touch or too mysterious. Seeing his relationship with Abney develop throughout was delightful, and even a little sad.
I am honestly stoked to see him again in the sequel, The Ghoul King.

I am usually not a fan of zombies. Not in the least. This is mostly down to how they have been handled by authors, directors, game developers and artists.
But The Emperor's Railroad features the living dead, and I ain't got no problem with that. I never felt like they were the point of the story, or a gimmick - they are simply a symptom of the post-apocalypse and humanity's fall.
As a result, I can tell you that these zombies here were just right. Menacing, dead things, but never overused or overstaying their welcome. They had a time and place in the story, and a good amount of impact on the characters.

The post-apocalyptic fantasy isn't new, of course. Mark Lawrence, for example, made up his own setting of this type for his Broken Empire series. However, even limited by the novella format, I found The Emperor's Railroad to yield far more in that regard than Lawrence's series. It is richly detailed and contextualized to the point of making me see these places in front of me.

This is yet another example of Haley's worldbuilding skills, which I have long admired. Everything clicks together, while still leaving room for further exploration and instilling a sense of longing for more in the reader. There are so many things left to find out about this world, its inner workings and the nature of the angels. Guy Haley has created a rich environment that he will hopefully elaborate on through many more stories in the future.

The Emperor's Railroad is a wonderful blend of themes, and underlines the old saying that technology can feel indistinguishable from magic. The whole world design, the references to real places and musings about mankind's hubris, it all comes together to create something grander than the sum of its parts.
I'd urge you to give it a try, and am eagerly awaiting the follow-up.

The Emperor's Railroad on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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