skygiants: cute blue muppet worm from Labyrinth (just a worm)
Those who follow me on Twitter may have seen me bewailing the fact that my Kindle tragically expired last week with FIVE DAYS left in the trip and NO PHYSICAL BOOKS.

Obviously, I made a plea for one of the people I was visiting for work to take me to the nearest used bookstore as soon as our meeting was done, where I found a copy of China Miéville's Embassytown.

I've read a lot of Miéville over the years, and I'm kind of annoyed at myself that somehow the one I missed when it was published is perhaps the best one he's ever written. Instead at that time I was reading Kraken. Which ... had elements in which it that were fine ... but was CERTAINLY NO EMBASSYTOWN.

Embassytown is that rare beast, science fiction of hard linguistics. It's set on a human trade outpost on an alien planet, which is populated by an intelligent species, the Ariekei. Communication with the Ariekei is uniquely difficult due to the fact that their language (known only as Language) must a.) be spoken by two mouths at once and b.) spoken with single conscious intent -- so they can't understand a programmed computer voice, or two people with distinct consciousnesses speaking at once; the only thing that registers to them as speech is one mind, speaking in two voices. Or, at least, a very close approximation thereof.

The staff and Ambassadors of Embassytown have gone to great lengths to create that approximation and keep a functioning level of trade communications with their host species, and it's gone OK, for a while. Unfortunately, one experiment is about to accidentally trigger something new, and horrifying -- a genuine linguistic apocalypse.

Caught in the middle of all this is our protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, a child of Embassytown who achieved moderate fame as a child by virtue of being enshrined in Language as a living example of an Ariekei simile: "the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her." Avice then rose to the status of minor celebrity by becoming one of the few people born in Embassytown who ever left -- and then came back, because her new linguist husband Scile (latest in a line of several spouses) has decided that he would like to write his dissertation on Language. Pretty soon, Scile starts to get a severe bee in his bonnet about the fact that a small group of Ariekei are using similes to teach themselves something that has previously been impossible for them as users of Language: how to lie. Though the problems this causes in Scile and Avice's relationship are fairly rapidly overshadowed by the aforementioned linguistic apocalypse.

This is already a long post and I haven't even mentioned about half the stuff in this book (the living architecture! the space travel! Avice's incredibly intriguing android bff!) It's probably the best showcase of Miéville's incredibly inventive imagination since the Bas-Lag books, but he's leveled up in plotting and leveled out in -- grimness? Not that this book isn't grim, at times, because it CERTAINLY is, and a lot a lot a lot of people (of various species) die, and there are certainly times when it seems like all hope may well be lost, but --

-- well, here's a thing that struck me very much, reading this book at this particular moment: as things get more apocalyptic in the book, I kept waiting for the random acts of senseless hate and prejudice that always appear in an apocalypse, and they never happened. Plenty of horrible things do happen, but they're all either accidental, or motivated by grim logic, or, at absolute worst, ambition. Hatred has a place in this book, but it's always personal. Xenophobia, even under situations that seem like they would almost inevitably create xenophobia, has very little place at all. That's enough, in this story, to allow a turn away from total catastrophe and into change and adaptation. And in spite of the fact that I would not ever call this book cheerful, there's something kind of amazingly optimistic about that.
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (double meaning)
If nothing else, I probably have Snowpiercer to thank for reminding me about reading Railsea, China Mieville's MOBY DICK ON A TRAIN.

...ok, Moby Dick on many trains. Moby Dick in a land where NO ONE HAS BOATS. There are only trains. And giant whale-moles that prowl the vast expanse of earth over which the trains roll , biting people's legs off. If you think 'but that doesn't make worldbuilding sense!' - yeah, OK, it kind of doesn't, but you roll with it.

I had a hard time getting into Railsea at first, in large part because of Mieville's decision to replace every 'and' with an & sign as part of his internal worldbuilding, which felt incredibly cutesy and jarring to me for about the first hundred pages.

But then we got to the part where the narrator explains that all the greatest moling captains on the great railsea spend their lives pursuing a giant animal, generally one that has bit of an extremity of some kind, and this animal is known as their PHILOSOPHY and they spend the time that they're not obsessively pursuing the animal sitting around in bars expounding on the DEEPER REPRESENTATIVE MEANING OF THEIR PHILOSOPHY, and OK, Mieville, you got me, I can't resist that level of straight-faced meta parody. YOU GOT ME. Captain Genn's Ferret of Unrequitedness! MOCKER-JACK, THE MOLE OF MANY MEANINGS.*

Also, Captain Naphi herself, with her charisma and her obsession and her facility with a spin story, is 100% fascinating and I love her entire terrifying narrative arc.

Captain Naphi is not the protagonist, and the Mocker-Jack strand, while important, is not actually the primary plot of the book; our protagonist is Sham ap Soorap, trainboard doctor's assistant, who gets swept up in a Great Adventure when he accidentally stumbles over evidence of the edge of the world (or at least the world as they know it.) I kind of expected Sham to bore or annoy me, but surprisingly he didn't! I became immensely endeared to him from the moment he rescued a pet daybat and named it Daybe. DAYBE.

And then: train pirates! kidnappings! ancient salvage! giant mole attacks! mutiny! angel trains! wildly playful worldbuilding and prose! a sudden hilarious left turn into 'BY THE WAY CAPITALISM IS THE WORST' because it's China Mieville and he can't resist! a total lack of crushing depression at the end!

This may be my new favorite of Mieville's books? No, actually, it is my favorite, no question. Though I still have Embassytown left.

* Sidenote: Actually I've never read Moby Dick. I know! I will! Someday! But Railsea was still deeply hilarious to me.
skygiants: Honey from Ouran with his hands to his HORRIFIED CHEEKS (ZOMG!)
I still have no idea what I thought about China Mieville's Kraken, except that, man, I am REALLY IMPRESSED he managed to maintain five hundred pages of this book with a straight face. (I mean, the straight face is necessary to the joke. I think. Probably.)

So Kraken kicks off with the mysterious disappearance of a PRESERVED GIANT SQUID from the London Natural History Museum! Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth from our multitudes of idiosyncratic main characters:

SQUID-WORSHIPPING CULT: Oh nooooooooes someone else is out there with our god, the giant squid!
BILLY, OUR BLAND PROTAGONIST: I dunno guys, I'm just a postgrad preservationist with a talent for squid.
(SQUID-WORSHIPPING CULT: Or are you . . . THE SQUID MESSIAH?!?! Quick, drink some squid ink to show us the waaaaaay!
BILLY, OUR BLAND PROTAGONIST: I don't wanna. :( :( :()
MARGE, OUR BLAND PROTAGONIST'S BLAND FRIEND'S AWESOME GIRLFRIEND: So I don't really care about all this squid stuff and it seems like I'm pretty tangential to the book . . . OR AM I?
WATI, UNDEAD ANCIENT EGYPTIAN STATUE UNION ORGANIZER: I also don't care so much about the squid, I have got my hands full organizing a STRIKE in MAGICAL LONDON. Workers! Unite!

The plot is basically that stealing the squid is going to trigger an apocalypse of FIERY DOOM, and everyone's like "you would think the cults would be okay with that," and the cults are like "but it's the WRONG APOCALYPSE! And it's GONE WRONG!" and then everyone runs around in a flailing panic being chased by increasingly more surreal inhabitants of magical London, and occasionally checking in with all the future-diviners to be like "did we avert FIERY DOOM APOCALYPSE yet?" and the future-diviners are like "nope" and then they run around in a flailing panic some more.

Our bland protagonist has a bland bromance with a warrior of the SQUID CULT and remains sort of uninteresting. Wati hangs around being ten times awesomer than either of them (UP THE UNION!) and Marge steals the show by refusing to be kicked out of the story and doing her own awesome thing on the sidelines, although the book still fails the Bechdel test. Surreal events continue to take place at an increasingly rapid clip, until you're like "oh, of course the angry skull-in-a-jar angel defender of the Natural History Museum just kicked the ass of a whole bunch of goons with giant fists instead of heads, WHY NOT." China Mieville demonstrates how in tune he is with the culture of the internets by having a character make LOLcats jokes about the stolen squid, which just makes me wonder how very confused even a geek reader will be by seeing a policewoman joke "noooooo they be stealin mah squid!" in ten years' time. (Authors: using very specific and incredibly nerd pop cultural references DOES date your book! TAKE NOTE.) At one point a lady exorcist rabbi pops up at someone's front door with a GIANT SHOFAR, which for me was literally the most hilarious thing to happen all book.

And the book gets increasingly baroque about the metaphysical significance of all these squid-related events, and delves deeply into squid-cult theology, and you are just like "China Mieville, SERIOUSLY, how are you staying straight-faced?" Because the whole thing is clearly all a giant joke on the reader . . . or maybe by the end it isn't. I DON'T KNOW. As I said, I am very confused about this book.
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (binja!!!)
I have read most of China Mieville's adult novels, so I would probably have read his YA Un Lun Dun even without [ profile] shati's recommendation, but it certainly did not hurt!

Basically, Un Lun Dun is a Someone From Our World Saves the Otherworld quest fantasy that knows all the rules for the kind of book it's supposed to be, and is not at all shy at pointing out exactly how dumb some of them are. Naturally, I find this awesome. Zanna and Deeba are two twelve-year-old girls who find a Neverwhere-ish AlternaLondon called, unsurprisingly, UnLondon. Zanna is the Chosen One Described In The Prophecy; Deeba is along for the ride. Zanna starts to realize the Responsibility of her Role; Deeba makes friends with a milk carton. Everyone knows exactly how this book is going for about the first quarter, at which point it puts on the breaks and zooms off in a totally different and much more interesting direction.

I highly approve of what Mieville is doing here in everything except one: his writing here is really, really noticeably less stylistically complex than in his adult books. He still has his trademark density of creatively fantastical ideas (binjas! See icon! I want one!) but he's trying so hard to write a Young Adult book that the prose sometimes reads really flat, and comes alive mostly when the characters are talking. I probably wouldn't have been bothered by this as much or at all if I wasn't consistently impressed by Mieville's style and imagery in his adult books, but as it is I know what he can do when he's got his writing switched on. And while I get that if you're writing for twelve-year-olds you don't write the same way as if you're writing for twenty-year-olds . . . it's possible to write prose that's not quite as intense while still being complex and interesting. Elizabeth Knox, another beautiful stylist who recently made the crossover to YA, managed a simpler-but-still-gorgeous style really well in her Dreamhunter duo; conversely, Diana Wynne Jones (shut up, I know, it is impossible that I not bring her in) manages to write prose that is very simple while never being obvious, and rewards older readers as much as young ones. So I really do not think Mieville needed to dumb his prose down to that extent. This is just me, though; if you guys have different opinions on what needs to happen to make a book specifically YA rather than For Adults, I would really like to hear them!

And all that being said, I still enjoyed and would recommend the book! Especially if you feel as if you have seen Chosen Girl Fulfills Prophecy, Saves World a time or ten too often.
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (stories in the skin)
I've read all China Mieville's New Crobuzon books, and I actually like him a lot. He's totally allergic to happy endings, but he consistently wins me over with these fantastic dream/nightmare images that linger in your head - a city made of ships, a stolen train with rails being constantly laid down in front of it. King Rat is his first book, though, and set in our world (London, to be specific) so when I picked it up I wasn't sure how much I would like it. The setup seemed fairly ordinary through the first few chapters; kind of whiny tweenager Saul, not sure what to do with his life, is suddenly plunged into a traumatic situation and discovers he has a role to play in a hidden magical underworld. Two chapters in comes the reveal: Saul? Is half rat royalty. His first magical power? Being able to eat any garbage without throwing up!

At which point I looked up from the text and admitted, "All right. Well played, Mieville. THIS TIME!"

Basically, King Rat is Mieville trying to go turn your typical fantasy Ordinary Boy = Secret Royalty Premise on its head and make it into an urban nightmare, and in that he mostly succeeds, I think. Which is not to say the book doesn't have flaws, and significant ones. It's very clearly a first novel; there are definitely places where he's trying too hard (yes, it's very impressive that you know what 'crepuscular', 'susurrus', and 'liminal' mean, but you do not have to prove to us that you do. It's okay!) and concepts that could use tweaking. There were also places where I was really disappointed he did not go a lot further on overturning the usual tropes. Spoilers under cut. )

In sum: if you like very dark urban fantasy, King Rat is probably a good book for you. Me, I mostly enjoyed it, although it didn't leave me with the intense images the New Crobuzon-verse books do; this book is more of an adaptation and a patchwork, but even here you can see Mieville's imagination working double-time. For people who know his other books, it's also kind of cool to see how London here is slowly turning into the kind of living, terrifying city that is probably the template for New Crobuzon.


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