Yes! I am still reading! In fact, there is a section on my homepage where you can see what I am reading right now, which I update every month or so, with little snippets of my current impressions of the books.
These three books I’m reviewing here aren’t all that I have been reading, but they’re what I felt like writing about at greater length in the past few months.
I finally finished Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, read by John Lee, which I’ve been listening to off and on since July. It’s a secondary world fantasy set in the enormous, early industrial metropolis of New Crobuzon. New Crobuzon is full of all kinds of different hominids, including bug people, cactus people, hand parasite people??? The book’s main trio, at least at the beginning, is the scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, his romantic partner Lin—a bug person artist—and Yagharek. Yagharek is an exiled bird person (these different groups all have actual terms in the book, but I’m just gonna call him a bird person) who has had his wings removed, and he has come to New Crobuzon to see if Isaac can restore to him the power of flight.
The strongest point of the story is the city. It is riotous, expansive, and intensely detailed. Every neighborhood, every little enclave, is a whole world unto itself—just like a real city! There isn’t just The Bug Person Neighborhood, there are actually multiple, which fall into their own hierarchy among each other, with different cultures and different relations to the powerful of the city.
The trouble with the book, and the reason my progress with it slowed down about halfway through, is that the main antagonist basically flattens all this detail. The book switches focus from Isaac’s attempts to help Yagharek fly again, and Lin’s dealings in the sordid art world, and becomes a monster story. A big soul-sucking moth creature from a far away land is loose in the city, and everyone is powerless to stop it. I say it flattens things because this monster has essentially the same relationship with every neighborhood. The differences between the neighborhoods, their cultures, their inhabitants, what type of hominid they are, are all irrelevant. Everyone is equally powerless against this moth. Whereas before, Isaac, a standard human person, has different relationships with all the neighborhoods. Some are totally hostile to him, some he can mingle with easily. In some neighborhoods he doesn’t want to be seen publicly with Lin, in others he is open about his relationship. And likewise, every characters has a different orientation to any given neighborhood.
Like when Lin and Isaac visit a squat of bird people within the city, Isaac unwittingly makes an ass of himself, arrogant and offensive to the locals. Lin, being from an oppressed group herself, can see how abrasive Isaac is being, and tries to get him to leave before he does more damage.
The moth creature flattens this. Our heroes still have to move throughout the city as they try to fight it, and this does occasionally produce some of that sparkling detail and cultural friction which I so enjoyed in the beginning, but its more rare. Two other major characters are introduced, who are also as unique and separate from the city as the moth.
And it’s not that this monster narrative is bad, it’s just such a step down from what was developing before. I mean imagine if in A Song of Ice and Fire, after setting up all these different houses and characters, the second book immediately changed to focus on an invasion of white walkers who sweep across Westeros in indiscriminate carnage. Not bad necessarily, but it’s a waste! This moth story could’ve happened anywhere, it could’ve happened in London or Ankh-Morpork or Gotham.
Nevertheless, it’s a great book overall. Miéville employs a realism that goes beyond some dirt under the fingernails and missing teeth—it’s a realism of attitude, outlook. Most of the characters are subject to powers far beyond their control. The ones that are in power are not evil or righteous—no good kings, no kings at all actually, just an iron-fisted mayor and various apparatuses of violence under his command. Everything’s a little shitty, a little petty, a little casual. You live here. And that realism of attitude, combined with his fantastic, iridescent worldbuilding, is what has me eager to read more of Miéville, and wishing I’d started reading him sooner.Read More »