Wonderfully exciting action that maintains just the right amount of suspense and energy from start to finish. At heart, this is a heist story; it just happens to be set in a universe of wonder: under the adrenaline are fascinating world-building and intriguing characters--of all shapes and sizes, far beyond human. And lurking somewhere in the background are enthralling science fiction considerations that keep simmering into awareness. It's not just action, but intelligent action. With excellently adept, unobtrusive writing. This is a universe I hope to visit again soon.
Zen Starling is a petty thief from a poor backwater planet. Luckily, it's easy to hop aboard a train and travel to countless other planets in the blink of an eye. That's right: train. The network is a series of tracks connected by space-defying gateways that must be hurtled through at high speeds. Infinitely faster than travel by space ship, though that exists as well. More than anything else, Zen loves to ride the trains, seeing all the other worlds, imagining the possibilities that might exist. He justifies his jaunts by stealing enough to contribute to the meager life he leads with his hard working older sister and paranoid mother, who has always kept them moving and hidden in a furtive existence.
One of Zen's minor swipes brings far more attention than he would have ever believed, and he suddenly finds himself pursued and captured by a wartrain. He is questioned about a man called Raven, a man he's never met or even heard of. Before the questioning gets far, he is rescued and whisked away to a secret train on a secret railway, a train operated by a man named Raven. Raven has a proposition for Zen--one he has no option of refusing: steal an item from the Emperor's train, the most heavily guarded and least accessible vehicle in the universe. And he suddenly finds himself a part of games far more dangerous and complicated than anything he's ever experienced.
This is a universe where humans and Artificial Intelligences interact seamlessly. Not only are the locomotives fully intelligent, autonomous beings, so are many others. Everything is connected by a deep computer Network. Everything, including the K-gates for traveling, and all of it is overseen by twelve intelligences spread across the Datasea known as the Guardians. And there are alien species like the Hive Monks, shambling swarms of insects which, when gathered in large enough numbers, gain cohesive intelligence as larger beings. There is much to discover, and Zen only knows the tip of it. His voyage of discovery is propelled by a need to survive in the midst of these powerful forces.