Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

I decided to put up a review I did a little whilst ago of the best book I read in 2006, although it was actually published back in 2000.

Welcome to New Crobuzon. A vast city of skyrails and towers, of elevated railway lines and glasshouses inhabited by sentient cactii-people, a city of squalor and beauty where insects make art and the government dines the ambassadors of hell.

China Mieville’s debut novel takes the reader on dizzying tour of his immense construction, a teeming steampunk metropolis of six million people, the industrial and commercial hub of his painstakingly-constructed fantasy world of Bas-Lag. Rarely has a fictional city been brought to life so vividly, its tastes and smells all but leaping off the page. New Crobuzon immediately joins Viriconium, Ankh-Morpork, Minas Tirith, Amber, Lankhamar and the city-castle Gormenghast as one of the great civic constructions of fantasy literature.

Enough of the backdrop, what about the story? The novel follows the misadventures of a mixed band of heroes and antiheroes, of the ‘rebel’ inventor and scientist Isaac trying to build wings for a flightless bird-man of the desert; of the half-human, half-insectoid artist Lin being called upon to create the most complex piece of art of her life; of a journalist working for a secret newspaper dedicated to bringing down the corrupt government. Combined with the backdrop of civil discord and even robotic rebellion, the stage would be set for a truly great story.

What we get instead is a bug-hunt. Naturally, it’s a very good bug-hunt, tremendously well-written and incredibly tense in places, but it does feel that Mieville, having built one of the most amazing constructions in fantasy history, didn’t know what to do with it, but happily caught a re-run of
Aliens on TV and was inspired. The slight mundanity of this plot compared to the amazing backdrop makes for a curious dichotomy. A bit like Tolkien creating Middle-earth and choosing to concentrate on the adventures of Thranduil fighting spiders in Mirkwood rather than on Frodo and Aragorn’s adventures. This lack is offset on a first read by the expectation of the story taking a more radical turn, and the introduction of the sentient, demigod-like Weaver does fulfil this criteria. However, although the Weaver is a fascinating creation and character, it does veer towards deus ex machina, being employed to rescure our heroes from certain death twice in a short space of time. Despite the slight dampening effect of this, Mieville turns things round for a satisfyingly twisted and melancholy ending. There are some plot elements that are not explained and are presumably being held back for later Bas-Lag novels (the enigmatic character of Jack Half-a-Prayer being one, hopefully), but overall Perdido Street Station emerges as an awesome piece of worldbuilding, with a reasonable and entertaining story tacked on. But you get the feeling Mieville could have done more with his story. And perhaps he will.

Perdido Street Station (****) is published by Pan in the United Kingdom and by Del Rey in the United States.

China Mieville is also the author of King Rat (1998), The Scar (2002) and Iron Council (2004), the latter two of which are also set on the world of Bas-Lag. He published a short story collection, Looking for Jake and Other Stories, in 2005 which includes a Bas-Lag novella featuring Jack Half-a-Prayer. His next novel, Un Lun Dun, is a young adult fantasy due out in early 2007. He has plans to return to Bas-Lag at a later date. Mieville is also a political writer: his PhD thesis was published in book form in 2005 as Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law.

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