China Miéville sits firmly at the top of my ever-changing list of super awesome writers on the strength of the only other book by him that I’ve read, Kraken – a book I borrowed from the library for Thumbs rather than myself because Thumbs has a fascination/obsession with Giant Squid (and all things deep sea) and I thought he’d like the cover art if nothing else. When he got halfway through and wouldn’t stop talking about it I started reading the darn thing just to shut him up. Neither of us has shut up about it since. Miéville blew me away with one book so completely that I’ve been almost scared to read anything else by him.
Fortunately, Perdido Street Station is phenomenal. It opens with some brilliantly Dickensian descriptions of New Crobuzon and its inhabitants, the city as much a character as a location:
“The knot of architectural tissue where the fibres of the city congealed, where the skyrails of the militia radiated out from the Spike like a web and the five great train lines of the city met, converging on the great variegated fortress of dark brick and scrubbed concrete and wood and steel and stone, the edifice that yawned hugely at the city’s vulgar heart, Perdido Street Station.”
and some kick-ass place names: Canker Wedge, Aspic Hole, Brock Marsh, Griss Twist; and character names: Mayor Bentham Rudgutter, Mr Motley, Lemuel Pigeon, Montague Vermishank; which all have that fantastic sayableness that Dickens has. Just speaking the names out loud conjures up something of the character or the place named. A lot of my favourite books read aloud really well, and Perdido Street Station is up there with the best of them. I’ve been gleefully reading bits out to Thumbs as I’ve gone along, unable to contain myself, (seriously, how could I keep the summoning of the Abassador of Hell to myself? Or the Construct Council and its avatar? Or Derkhan Blueday’s visit to the communicatrix Umma Balsum? – gotta love those names – Or the Weaver?).
Reading this book was like being slowly sucked down into darker and darker waters, filled with beautiful, nightmarish things. At first I was just revelling in the world building as Miéville mapped out his vast city, and the larger world of Bas-Lag; then I became entranced by the sheer variety and seeming absurdity of the characters that moved in and out of the story; eventually I just gaped, in awe, as the various storylines were brought together and the book’s Big Bad raised its very scary head (and wings! And tentacles!) It’s the kind of book that – when first faced with its doorstep size and weight – you feel a small shiver of anticipation (and maybe just a tremor of fear) at the prospect of reading, but once it got going it really didn’t feel that long. Every single word felt necessary. New Crobuzon is a massive, complex, completely-realised city. There’s no sketching-in of details, it doesn’t feel like Miéville is saving anything for later, when you peer in you can see all the way to the back.
So, I think I’ve made it clear that I liked it, right? But I’m not done yet. You see, while it’s well-written and it’s got some very interesting lead characters (Isaac and Lin are particularly cool – talk about star-crossed lovers – damn), and great set pieces and an awesome Big Bad (or two, or more), it’s also very clever. I mentioned that Miéville was smart, right? So the theme of transformation runs through the whole book, sometimes obviously, as caterpillars transform into moths; sometimes more subtly as a machine burgeons into consciousness; and leading the charge is Yagharek, the mutilated bird-man who wants Isaac to help him regain flight. Yagharek begins the book, already transformed (from a flying man to a non-flying man), and it is from his POV that we first see New Crobuzon. As the book progresses we occasionally check in with him, first-person, to see how he is being changed by the city and the people he meets. We build up a picture of him as an exile from his race, out of his element, weakened and less than he was. We feel pity for him and his flightless plight. And as the book goes on, and larger problems take over, we still hope that Isaac will be able to help Yagharek achieve his goal. And the clever part is that Miéville lets you feel that way, and then at the end he releases just one more piece of information, nothing much, that recasts Yagharek – and your opinion is transformed, along with Isaac’s, about what the right thing to do might be. But you have to have read all about what happened to Isaac and Lin and the others to feel the way you do at the end. Of course, I could be barking up completely the wrong tree. Miéville could have intended none of what I’ve just read into his novel, but it felt clever at the time, and I’m going to attribute it to him until he tells me otherwise.
Whether the above is intentional or not, Miéville has still written a beautiful book. There’s magic (multiple types) and science, and a place in the middle where the two comingle. There are semi-mythical races like the Garuda bird people, Wyrmen and Vampires, and alien races like the Handlinger, and strange half-and-half races like the Khepri and the Cactacae. There are flintlock guns and gas lamps, and other planes of existence, and even a god “devoted to the collection, categorisation and dissemination of information”. And there is the Weaver (I know I’ve already mentioned it, but it bears repeating in case you didn’t realise just how cool the Weaver really is): terrifying and wonderful; poetic and as mad as a bag of spanners, cutting peoples’ ears off and dressing them up in silly outfits because it makes the world web prettier; obsessed with the beauty of scissors, and a tad unpredictable; a tic-tac-toe playing, riddle-talking, world-crossing creature. And absolutely my favourite character in this book.
If you like a good adventure – read this book. If you like a bit of horror – read this book. If you like really well-drawn characters, good plotting, not knowing what’s coming next, anything out of the ordinary, then guess what? Read. This. Book.