Railsea by China Mieville
I picked this up upon the advice of one of my favorite local children's librarians, and boy, was she right! This is another fabulous book! I can't believe I've had two home run books in a row (the other being The Lions of Little Rock).
So while I had to write this review, I need to start off with a warning that this is not really a middle schoolers book. It is classified as a YA novel, but I don't think adults picking it up would think it was "youth" literature rather than adult literature. Apparently it is more accessible than some of the other books that he is written, but I've never read any of his works before, so I can't comment on that.
It is very hard to describe Railsea, but if I had to sum it up, to me it was kind of a steampunk fairy tale, with some religious and political overtones. Mieville himself likes to call his work "weird fiction," and is part of a group of contemporary writers known as the New Weird who explain their literature as "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy."
So, basically, his stuff is fantasy, but much more Blade Runner than Lord of the Rings (in fact, Mieville has said that his goal is to move fantasy away from the influence of Tolkien). And yet....this book was largely inspired by the great 19th century novel of American Romanticism, Moby Dick, with secondary influences contributed by adventure tales such as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe.
In short, this is not your typical YA teenage angst/dystopian future/love triangle/vampire-werewolf-alien-monster fest.
In this book, Mieville has transported the obsessive quest for a beastly foe from the seas to the rails. Instead of large ships sailing across vast oceans in which unknown dangers lurk, in Mieville's world the denuded plains are traversed with dozens or hundreds of looping, intersecting, and extensive tracks of unknown origin upon which the inhabitants make a living on a variety of different trains--electric, diesel, clockwork, or even wind-powered. No one steps foot outside the trains, however, because the land is filled with massive subterranean killers--burrowing monsters such as the carniverous antlion, the vicious blood rabbit, or the largest predator of them all, the moldywarpe. The landscape is cluttered with the wrecks and detritus of those who came to ruin on the ever-aging rails.
Thus, in Railsea, Mieville has created an incredibly interesting and unique world (complete with drawing that he did himself of the various underground hunters of the people above). Then he borrows plot devices from some of the greatest novels of the past, weaving a tale filled with action and unexpected twists and turns. However, as in Melville's original, the action is interspersed with literary reflections, both on the characters and stories themselves, but also on the moral or political questions that the story is raising.
It is this, in particular, that makes this a story for older teens. Mieville uses various literary devices, such as asides and reflections by an unknown narrator, invented words and uses of language, and extensive usage of the ampersand, which is also a symbol for the rails themselves, which makes the book not a straight-forward read. It takes a bit to get into his style, his words, his world. It is well worth it, but I think the reader needs to be at a minimum of a high school reading level not to get frustrated or lost among Mieville's literary inclusions.
So it may be a few years before your middle schooler will be ready for this book. But it is a book I can highly recommend for you! I could see this book being a great book to read in class after the traditional Moby Dick version; the two taken together would probably enhance understanding of each work.