Review – Embassytown

Cover of Embassytown by China MiévilleEmbassytown, China Miéville
Originally reviewed 26th October, 2012

Miéville’s work is never easy for me — I always have to work for it — so I get a little contemptuous of people who just read fifty pages and give up, even though I do that plenty with other books. I always have to give Miéville plenty of leeway: he gets to a place where he blows my mind in the end, but it might take half the book before I’m starting to see it.

So it was with Embassytown, and not helped by the fact that I’m in a bit of a depressed phase at the moment and everything is Too Much Effort. But I got there eventually, and when I did, I didn’t want to put the book down for a second. I stayed up to finish it, last night, and felt breathlessly excited at the twists and turns.

I can understand the criticisms that there aren’t really any well-defined/sympathetic/unique characters (maybe if there’d been more of Spanish Dancer?), but in Miéville’s work there’s always plenty that makes up for it, for me. His cities are pretty much characters, both a collection of separate organisms and an organism in themselves, and his world-building is second to very, very few. I loved the concept of Language, and the way it became language. I just. Flail.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Iron Council

Cover of Iron Council by China MiévilleIron Council, China Miéville
Originally reviewed 1st May, 2009

I didn’t enjoy Iron Council anywhere near as much as I did Miéville’s other books. I’m not sure quite why, to be honest. Parts of it irritated me stylistically — the large section which follows Judah in the middle, mainly — but that wouldn’t automatically lower my enjoyment of the whole book. I didn’t find the writing as descriptive, although there were some very interesting descriptions, mostly the parts where the train goes through the stain. Whyever it was, I just didn’t get into this book that much. I did enjoy it, and if you enjoy the other Bas-Lag books and know what to expect from Miéville’s writing, then I’m sure you’d get a lot out of it. I just didn’t.

Part of it is that it isn’t as focused. It’s not just one city, but two. The train-city is built up and described, but I don’t feel as strongly connected and rooted to it as I do to New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station and Armada in The Scar. If the cities are characters, Iron Council falls a little flat. There are interesting characters, mostly Cutter and Judah, who I think I got more attached to than other characters of similar importance in the other two Bas-Lag books. I think Cutter was the character I got most attached to. Judah being all saint-like all the time kind of made me want to hit him sometimes, but Cutter’s feelings were so honest and open in the narrative.

In terms of plot, I spent a lot of time wondering where it was actually going. It never came together as strongly as I expected it to, and the climax wasn’t much of a climax. The end is appropriate, and makes sense, but I think the book could have been edited/reordered for better effect.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Scar

Cover of The Scar by China MiévilleThe Scar, China Miéville
Originally reviewed 1st May, 2009

I’m glad I was already familiar with China Miéville’s work before I read The Scar. I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much if I hadn’t known, to some extent, what to expect. The Scar is set in the same universe as Perdido Street Station, and has links with it, although it is not set in the same city. The prose is similar, very rich and dense, and the world-building is just as intense. It can be a little hard to get into: I remember with the first book that I found myself wondering what the main plot was going to be because what was there didn’t seem big enough. I was less dubious about The Scar, and wasn’t exactly surprised by the way the plot unfolded and unfolded and got bigger and bigger.

Which isn’t to say I knew where it was going, because while there were some things I expected and some things other people mentioned helped connect some dots, the end was still a shock to me. A good kind of shock, the “oh, that’s what’s going on, now everything suddenly makes sense” kind of shock, but still a shock. It’s hard to articulate what I felt about it because when I got to the end, I sat down to try and talk in a discussion thread about it and couldn’t summon up the words. I loved it, really, the way everything comes together, and the way everyone takes their place in the scheme of things and all the characters’ purposes make sense.

Overall, I loved the descriptions of the city. Miéville is really damn good at building up pictures like that, making you see it vividly, making you know how it works. I think I remarked in my review of Perdido Street Station that the city itself seems like a character, and the plot more like a vehicle to explore it — or if I didn’t, I should’ve. I felt this less in The Scar, but Armada is still a sort of character of its own.

Speaking of characters, The Scar has a lot of interesting ones. I’m really pleased that some Remade, who were more on the outskirts of Perdido Street Station, were closer to the heart of this book. Tanner Sack is an awesome character, I think — not too complicated in his thinking, but good and loyal. His slow transformation to become more of a sea-creature is really, really interesting to read about, and he was one of the few characters I wasn’t ambivalent about. Shekel was another, of course. I ended up liking the Brucolac more than I expected to, given that he’s a vampire and quite scary. Uther Doul is another fascinating character, and it’s amazing how much of a part he plays in the end. I didn’t like Silas at any point, so I was quite unsurprised by what he was doing, but Doul was more of a surprise. There’s a lot of manipulating going on in this book, and it amazes me how intricate it gets while still making sense.

Bellis herself, I didn’t feel much about either way. She’s rather unremarkable, really, except in being at the right (or wrong) place at the right time.

The Lovers were one of my favourite things about the book. The story surrounding them, about the scars, is intense and intriguing, and I was very drawn to the concept. Not so much to the characters, but definitely to the concept. I was actually sad when they parted because they were such a strong symbol.

I feel like I haven’t even managed to touch on the things that fascinate me about this book. It’s rich and dense, the characters are for the most part interesting and powerful. The ending is a wonderful culmination of all the threads, all the little details, and I love it. The world-building is wonderful. One of the things I like best about it is that there isn’t even any attempt to explain their science and make it like our science. It just is, but it’s not magic, it’s still science.

There are some amazing quotes, too. The ones that stuck out to me most are both related to Tanner:

-“A scar is not an injury, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After an injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”

-“In time, in time they tell me, I’ll not feel so bad. I don’t want time to heal me. There’s a reason I’m like this.
I want time to set me ugly and knotted with loss of you, marking me. I won’t smooth you away.
I can’t say goodbye.”

I think those are amazing and lovely, too.

In conclusion, I think The Scar is well worth reading. If you can’t get into it because of all the denseness, persevere. I definitely found it worth it. I liked The Scar better than Perdido Street Station, but that might also have been because I was more prepared for it.

Rating: 5/5

Review – Perdido Street Station

Cover of Perdido Street Station by China MiévillePerdido Street Station, China Miéville
Originally reviewed 1st June, 2008

The description in this book is very good, in terms of the fact that it creates a very vivid picture. Of course, it also grossed me out, and maybe went a little bit overboard with that. Just two chapters in, though, I was ready to say that his world building was excellent. Sentence building? Maybe not so much. At one point I stopped and counted how many words were in one sentence, which took up half a page just by itself. One hundred and nineteen words without a single full stop! Although, admittedly, there was other punctuation — thankfully, or I’d have gotten even more lost in the sentence than I did. People can write stories in fewer words than that! I suppose you can make a case for it being a deliberate choice. The last three words of the sentence are, after all, apparently central to the book: Perdido Street Station.

One hundred pages in, I was very much intrigued by the world, by how things came to be that way, by whether there was any connection to our world, despite its strangeness, or whether it was just something entirely different. I wasn’t so hooked by the characters, about whom I knew little than the fact that one was a scientist obsessed with his work and the other was an artist, his somewhat illicit lover.

By one hundred and fifty pages in, I was getting tired of all the description of the city. And I still didn’t really care about the characters. I was intrigued by Mr. Motley, but only because I wanted to know what had happened to him, and I was curious about the garuda, but I didn’t really care. If anything, the main character in this book is the city itself, and the plot designed to take you on a tour of every corner of it. That’s interesting enough, but not really my thing. When the slake moths came in and the story became more focused on that, it began to be more interesting. The little glimpses into Yagherek’s mind and crimes made me somewhat more interested in him as a character, and the strangeness of the Weaver made it interesting too.

Jack Half-A-Prayer came out of nowhere. I can see foreshadowing for him coming in, but his presence wasn’t necessary to the plot — it was just another little detail about the city-character, really.

This book didn’t care about being ruthless to the characters. In some ways that’s good, but in actuality I didn’t care enough about the characters to be really hurt by the ruthlessness.

I wasn’t disappointed, per se, and I did find it an interesting, absorbing and, in places, exciting read. I just don’t quite know if all the raving I’ve been reading about it is entirely justified.

Note: I think I’ve now read just about everything by Miéville, and I think it is justified. But his books are weird.

Rating: 4/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday prompt is “Top Ten Inspiring Quotes from Books”. Which is a little bit hard, because I don’t really keep track of quotes. But there are some that stick with me — maybe not inspiring, so much, but defining.

  1. “Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.” (I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith.)
  2. “If you marry a man like that and live his life, then I agree. You may not really want to hurt people, but you will.”
    “That is hateful. Hateful! To say it that way. That I haven’t any choice, that I have to hurt people, that it doesn’t even matter what I want.”
    “Of course it matters, what you want.”
    “It doesn’t. That’s the whole point.”
    “It does. And that’s the whole point. You choose. You choose whether or not to make choices.”
    (The Eye of the Heron, Ursula Le Guin.)
  3. Only in silence the word,
    Only in dark the light,
    Only in dying life:
    Bright the hawk’s flight
    On the empty sky.
    (A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin.)
  4. “For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.” (Silver on the Tree, Susan Cooper.)
  5. “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.” (The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell.)
  6. “Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow, ‘Get out, you don’t belong here?’ Does the tree say to the hungry man, ‘This fruit is not for you?’ Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?” (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman.)
  7. “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” (On the Road, Jack Kerouac.)
  8. “It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.” (Among Others, Jo Walton.)
  9. “Scars are not injuries, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.” (The Scar, China Miéville.)
  10. “That’s how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.” (Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente.)

That was… surprisingly hard to choose. On the Road makes it only because of something else I once read that quoted that line; I’m afraid I don’t like the book itself.