The Emperor’s Railroad is an utterly pedestrian story that is only rescued from total mediocrity by some intriguing world building. Unfortunately, Guy Haley’s novella never manages to full utilize the potential of its setting, and the ending leaves the reader with far more questions than answers.
Told from the point of view of an elderly man, Abney, looking back on his childhood encounter with a Knight, Quinn, The Emperor’s Railroad details a harrowing journey as Quinn escorts twelve-year-old Abney and Abney’s mother from the ruins of their small town in what I guess is Pennsylvania to a different small town in Ohio. It’s not entirely clear, and it doesn’t really matter that much because the setting a really just so much set dressing for a very old and very dull tale. It’s cool set dressing, but there’s not really a lot of substance if you think about it for more than a minute.
So, basically, there was some kind of global war apocalypse that was followed up by a zombie plague some thousand years before the events of the story. In the centuries since, “angels” have taken up residence in some of the major cities east of the Mississippi—Pittsburgh, Columbus, and others—from which they rule large territories that are additionally broken up in a sort of feudal system of kings and lords and even at one point an emperor, all of whom are beholden to the angels. The angels seem to have retained some science and technology, and they seem to have at least some measure of control over the armies of Dead that still ravage the countryside.
The Dead, along with a “dragon” set to police the borders between a couple of territories, are the dangers that are most immediately relevant to the story here, though, which I guess is good because none of this makes much sense. It’s neat, and I like some of the ideas, but Haley both over- and under-explains here. There are a lot of details that hint at a complex and potentially interesting world, but there’s not enough explanation for how or why this world came to be. Sure, the “angels”—though they obviously aren’t really angels—are kept mysterious, but their motives are also completely opaque, and while it’s clear that these overlords are managing the ugly and unjust world as we find it in the story, what’s not clear (at all) is how this benefits them. The subjugated towns and downtrodden populace live miserable lives, but they don’t seem to pay taxes or tithes of goods to the Dreaming Cities. In fact, travel and trade of all kinds is shown to be nearly impossible. It just doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Abney’s mother, Sarah, is the only female character in the book, and she’s not particularly present in the story. She exists largely on the edges of the story and her primary purpose in the narrative is to die so that Abney can survive. She does get a bit of backstory about how she’s a valuable commodity in a world with few fertile women left, but though Abney loves his mother and is saddened by her eventual—and heavily telegraphed—demise, The Emperor’s Railroad is primarily about Abney and Quinn and how meeting Quinn changed the way Abney saw the world. Quinn is a pretty standard lone wolf itinerant hero, though, and there’s not much to distinguish him from other characters of his type. He’s stoic and self-deprecating and gruffly kind, and when he discharges his duty he moves on to new adventures. That is to say, he’s nothing special.
Perhaps this story deserved to be told in a novel length work in order to take better advantage of the author’s considerably imaginative world building, or perhaps it’s a world that ought to have been explored through a different character’s (Sarah’s, perhaps?) perspective. Either way, The Emperor’s Railroad doesn’t quite manage to be terribly interesting. It also feels a little too reminiscent of the other recent Tor.com novella, Pieces of Hate by Tim Lebbon, which dealt with another type of itinerant hero and opened with a novelette that was a similar type of boy’s-adventure-with-hero-passing-through kind of story. Still, it’s for the most part a highly readable and mostly-enjoyable introduction to the world of Guy Haley’s Dreaming Cities. I don’t expect that these will be among my favorite of Tor.com’s novellas, but I’m looking forward to the next one, if for no other reason than I’m hoping to find out some of the answers to all the questions I have about how this post-apocalyptic world works.
The Emperor’s Railroad will be released on April 19, 2016.
This review is based upon an advance copy of the book received for review through NetGalley.