Posts Tagged ‘China Mieville’

Book Review: “Railsea” by China Mieville

This review contains minor spoilers for “Railsea”, but does not spoil the ending.


The review you’re reading now will be the third review I’ve written of a China Mieville novel. I’ve read all his books except for King Rat & Looking for Jake. Most of them have similar themes & tropes — the love of home, phantasmagoric settings & creatures, some form of transportation that’s central to the story, & an ending that leaves you wondering why you read the book if you’re going to be left empty when you’re done.

Note that I said empty. Not unsatisfied.

Well, Railsea broke the trend on at least one of them: I wasn’t empty at the end. But otherwise, we’re looking at pretty standard Mieville here.

(Continue Reading…)

Book Review: “Embassytown” by China Mieville

I was once working in a building that was under construction, and the noise was so loud and annoying that I said it was like someone playing a trombone — badly — inside a swimming pool filled with gravel. I made a simile, because the English language is capable of comparing things to other things that might not exist.

Imagine you couldn’t do that. Imagine that, to make said comparison, I would have to have a bad trombone player buried in a huge pile of gravel on the floor of a swimming pool, playing his instrument all the while.

The main character of China Mieville’s newest novel, Embassytown, is that trombone player.

Embassytown takes place in the far future, on a planet called Arieka. The natives — colloquially called Hosts — can breathe human-compatible atmosphere (although the reverse is not true), so they created an area on the planet for humans to settle in, so we could trade with them.

The world of Embassytown is exactly as phantasmagoric as you would expect from Mieville. Hyperspace travel goes through a weird realm called the immer where people see… things. The Hosts are a cross between spiders, flies, and two-mouthed hydras. Humanity has created Ambassadors to speak with the Hosts — twin humans, connected by mental implants — who act as one person (despite being two discrete beings) and can speak Language, the Hosts’ form of speech, which is delivered via two separate streams of words at the same time. And, of course, since the Hosts can’t compare things that never existed, in order to create similes they have to use humans.

Enter Avice, the main character, who — in Language — is “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her”. To create that simile, Avice actually had to undergo the events of it. So did dozens of other humans, such as “the man who swims every week” and others like him.

Embassytown follows Avice, who grew up in Embassytown and left home to become an immerser — someone who can pilot starships through the immer — but has returned to Arieka a minor hero, not just because of her facility with immersion but also because she is one of the most popular similes among the Ariekei. Spurred on by her (non-exclusive) husband’s desire to learn Language, Avice inveigles herself in high society, eventually forming a relationship with Ambassador CalVin and appearing with them at parties and functions. But one day, when a ship from Bremen (home planet of the confederation of worlds that includes Arieka) delivers a new Ambassador, EzRa, the strange world of Embassytown and the Ariekei who frequent it is changed forever.

Like all of Mieville’s books, Embassytown is full of rich imagery, unique patois, characters you both love and hate, and strange and wonderful creatures. In this book, the mind that gave us New Crobuzon’s Remade presents the Ariekei’s technology — all bioengineered, all alive, from aeoli (breathing masks that convert Arieka’s air into something humans can breathe) to guns that spit their ammunition in the direction they’re pointed. Even buildings are alive, to a point.

But Embassytown‘s Big Idea is language: what is it, how is it spoken, and how does it differ when you can’t even create a metaphor because your brain would literally force you to go insane? The Ariekei can’t lie because Language is a completely referential language. They don’t even have the word “that”, because when you say “that chair”, you not only refer to the chair at which you’re pointing but also implicity every other chair in existence as being “not the one I want you to focus upon”.

Despite its broad scope — language, politics, aliens, bioengineering — the novel echoes a common theme in Mieville’s other books: the love of one’s home and the desire to protect it. From Uther Doul and the Lovers in The Scar to Inspector Borlu in The City and the City, Mieville often focuses on a character who cares so much about his or her home city that s/he is willing to do anything to save it — go against the government, oppress the people, break the law, betray loved ones, and even commit murder. And, really, that sentiment is very deeply felt by many who have moved away from the place they consider “home” — for example, I still refer to Fort Lauderdale as “home”, even though I live in Atlanta now, and my memories of “home” are pretty much uniformly good, even though stuff happened to me while I lived there that I certainly wouldn’t want to experience again. Similarly, while Avice didn’t have a charmed childhood, and while she does harbor some animosity toward Embassytown, she clearly loves the place and doesn’t want to see anything bad happen to it.

And, since she’s a little bitchy through the first quarter of the book, that sort of thing really does help.

Unlike Kraken, Embassytown doesn’t force the reader to perform mental gymnastics to keep up with Mieville’s use of language. However, the book did take me quite a while to get through. There’s a lot to absorb, and a lot of pages to do it in, and, quite honestly, for the first half or so I really wondered what the dramatic tension was going to be. If the book has a failing, that’s it — that I had absolutely no idea where the road would take me, but damn if the scenery wasn’t worth staring at, slack-jawed and awed.

Embassytown is a great book. You should read it. It’s another home run by an author who seems to hit nothing but. But, you know, if you’d rather become part of a simile and be referred to as “the person who chose not to read the novel called Embassytown“… that’s up to you.

Note to Parents: This book contains violence (including self-mutilation), adult language, adult situations, and occasional sexual situations (many not of the male/female two-person variety). It should be safe for older teens who have read similar material in the past. However, the reading level of the material may preclude even mature younger teens from fully appreciating the novel. Of course, you should use your own best judgment where your children are concerned.

Book Review: “Kraken” by China Mieville

When China Mieville’s The Scar — still my favorite book of his — came out, I was working for an over-the-air sci-fi-themed radio show which shall remain nameless. They booked an interview with Mieville, and as the board-op, I called him (I’m guessing at his hotel in Los Angeles or wherever he was), thanked him for being on the show, and potted him up when it was time for him to go on. The hosts talked to him about the novel, which was noteworthy to them I guess because it had a vampire in it. After about 15 minutes, they thanked him, and it was over*.

Mieville’s latest novel, Kraken, is about a giant squid in the same way The Scar is about a vampire.

Kraken is an extremely difficult book to summarize; Mieville’s plots often are. So instead I’m going to link you to this review by The Guardian. Their one-sentence precis is quite masterful:

Following the quest of museum curator Billy Harrow to recover his mysteriously vanished prize exhibit, the giant squid Architeuthis, Kraken plunges Billy and the reader into an alternative London of cults and magic.

Now that you know that, here’s what I liked (and didn’t) about the book:

When I first started reading the novel, I have to say I was — quite sadly — disappointed. Not with the content or the ideas, but with what I perceived to be the novel’s generic nature. It had many of the hallmarks of a fantasy story, and while each element was quite interesting… well, a $1000 hamburger at a gourmet restaurant still looks like a hamburger. To wit:

  • The main character, Billy Harrow, is about 30, intelligent, a little geeky (but not too much), and non-violent. Stuff happens to him. Eventually he takes control of that stuff.
  • Dane is a guard who is the key to the world of weird, and while our MC didn’t like him at first, it turns out he’s quite an important character.
  • There’s a trio of policemen who want Billy to work for them, and they come off kind of like Smith in the first Matrix, but it turns out that, hey, they’re not all bad.
  • Wisecracking female cop who knows more than her colleagues? Check.
  • Small god who is very helpful but can’t actually do anything.
  • This is the big one, the one that really ripped it for me: while the Big Bad Guys are the usual sort, it seems like most urban (or regular) fantasy contains two guys who speak with a funny patois or patter to their speech, are ruthless, love their jobs, and are feared by everyone. Yep. They’re totally there. And they commit murder and inventively-violent ways which, to me, seemed far too over-the-top even for Mieville, who, in the past, has had the arms of a dead child grafted onto its mother’s face as a form of punishment.

After the first 100 pages or so, I got into the swing of things and the generic feel of the characters went away. The use of conventions makes sense — it allows a fantasy reader to jump right into the world through the use of familiar characters, and casual readers are able to map character types onto the kind of characters they’re used to in, say, political thrillers or romantic comedies, thereby making what is often a very tough book to read just slightly easier.

And make no mistake: this isn’t the easiest book in the world to read. Mieville knows a lot of words, and he makes no bones about using them all — and not just in the order you’re used to. His writing is almost gymnastic in nature, and it forces you to pay attention to every bit of it in order to ensure you don’t miss anything. It’s really tough on those of us who are quick readers. He also continues to use very visceral and phantasmagoric verbal imagery — something I noticed in the New Crobuzon books — and, while it adds strength to the storytelling, sometimes it just gets tiring to have to think so hard about the words, instead of what they’re saying. (For example, when the Final Boss is revealed, and the monologue is given, I had trouble remembering the various clues that were given throughout the rest of the story as the Final Boss explained them.) I don’t mind working hard to read a book, but it can be too much from time to time.

I really enjoyed the book’s humor and genre awareness — for example: if you give a Star Trek fan the magical power to teleport, of course he’s going to beam everywhere he can. And speaking of Trek, one of Billy’s primary weapons throughout the novel is his phaser. It really works. In some places, Mieville basically says “yeah, this genre convention is crap, here’s how it really is when a magical practitioner does it”. That works too. One of his strengths is that every little bit of the world is fully-realized, which means the novel is packed full of little moments of win.

Also on the positive column is the sheer amount of cool and different powers the denizens of London possess. Smoking reality, teleportation, burning something so thoroughly it never even existed, creating a demonically-possessed iPod… there are dozens, and they’re all interesting. As are the end-of-the-world cults and the weird religions, the Embassy of the Sea, and the penultimate Boss Fight (think Jenova, with the final boss being Sephiroth).

Kraken is Mieville at his creative best, building a detailed and immersive world with a complex and layered plot that — in this case, quite literally — could mean the end of the world. The novel certainly has its flaws, as I noted above, but it’s definitely a good story, exciting and enjoyable to read. It’s no The Scar, but I think it’s a better book than The City and The City (which I didn’t really enjoy that much). I for one would’ve preferred another visit to New Crobuzon, but this is almost as good.

So, if this book’s just sitting on your bookshelf, gathering dust, perhaps it’s time to —

— oh, yes, I’m going there —


funny dog pictures-Release the Kraken!

* One would think the guy who had actually read the first novel in the New Crobuzon cycle might have helped in the prep for the interview. But that didn’t happen. If only I’d known how big a fan of Mieville’s I’d become, I’d have gotten in on the ground floor there.

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