Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Perdido Street Station Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: China Mieville
Publisher: Del Rey
Genre: Steampunk, New Weird
Series: Bas Lag Book One
Pages: 640

Buy on Amazon!

It Was A Jungle Without Predators

China Mieville’s second published novel had a huge impact on worldbuilding in fantasy novels.  Blending the visuals of what you would expect to see in a David Cronenberg horror film, a steampunk and urban fantasy, with some elements of science fiction, Perdido Street Station was instrumental in giving birth to a new sub-genre of fantasy: The New Weird.

Extraordinary worldbuilding leads to having those same lofty expectations spread across other aspects of Mieville’s writing. There is well written prose and well developed characters, however the main plot is surprisingly traditional and even predictable.  It created a clash that worked a lot of time but not all of the time.  By the end I was thoroughly impressed, but there were some areas that were definitely questionable.

There are a number of subplots but the one that draws the story together begins with scientist Issac Dan der Grimnebulin, who has earned a reputation for being a brilliant eccentric. When Yagarek, an exiled Garuda seeks out Issac he sets him on a task that ultimately winds up putting the city of New Crobuzon in great danger with a threat that could ultimately see the city and its inhabitants destroyed.

That’s a pretty standard fantasy plot … a great evil is released upon a city and it’s up to Issac and some associates to stop it… and not surprising, the outcome is mostly predictable.  What’s less predictable – besides the unique worldbuilding – is the fates that await all of the individual characters and their relationships with each other. The characters are mostly likeable, but they also make morally questionable decisions with a calm casualness that’ll have you wondering about the rightness of a lot of the characters’ decisions. One example of this occurs early on when Issac puts the word out in the underworld that he’s looking for as many different types of flying creatures as possible.  He quickly fills a warehouse with all sorts of ordinary and extraordinary creatures, and all of this is done without nearly any care to these creatures’ well being.  This results in experiments where animals/creatures are killed for stupid observation purposes. Again this is all done so casually that the reader could almost gloss over pretty inhumane treatment of living things.

Issac is in a tabu relationship with Lin, a Khepri, which is a fictional species of giant beetle. With this romance, Mieville plays between the bizarre and the realistic.  Realistic aspects focus on Lin and Issac’s traditional relationship problems, plus their added problem of having to keep their relationship secret. The bizarre aspects focus on how they have to communicate – which is done in a form of sign language – and how they have to have sex, which is described in some detail.  Also what’s bizarre is just Lin in general. She is an emerging artist who creates works of art by using different colored secretions that come from her glands, the secretions change color based off of what she eats. She then molds and sculpts them into art.

Characters that are secondary to the plot have interesting personalities or are involved in interesting subplots. The corrupt Mayor of New Crobuzon, Bentham Rudgutter selfishly works to make deals that benefit himself, while he attempts at manipulating powerful demons or other mythological characters into helping combat the terror unleashed on New Crobuzon.  Although Mieville keeps his parodying of politics slim, they’re a welcome addition.  Other smaller characters contribute to the uniqueness of the worldbuilding. Lin’s employer, Mr. Motley is a powerful character who has remade his body so many times that he now appears as an amorphous mass of appendages and limbs. The Construct Council that was made in the city’s dump works with Issac while it controls simplistic robots that were largely designed for janitorial purposes. The Weaver is giant spider that can appear in many different dimensions at the same time, while speaking almost exclusively in free-verse poetry.

Issues with Perdido Street Station mostly occur towards the end.  A briefly mentioned character earlier in the book makes a surprise appearance during a climactic clash at the end.  This created a dues ex machina effect that I wasn’t particularly fond of, and one that really undermined the strategies and struggles of the main characters in that clash.  The events that take place in the final chapter are also controversial. While I’m not disappointed by the outcome of the ending, it feels like it’s suddenly thrust on the readers in an attempt to give what was a blander plot a more unique styled ending … or an ending that at the very least was trying to mirror the worldbuilding.

Issues aside, Perdido Street Station should appeal to fans of steampunk and lovers of great worldbuilding or unique settings.  Definitely not your typical fantasy, this is a bold book for a reader who’s looking for something different.

Score: 9.0

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