I’ve been trying to pin down what’s got me so obsessed with China Mieville. His characters are often unlikeable. Really bad things happen. A happy ending is not guaranteed. He gets a little hung up on his favorite vocab words and uses them to death. This book was 700 pages and it took a while to get into. And yet…I can’t wait to read the next one. The scope of his creativity is amazing. The atmosphere in his books is like a physical thing. It feels like he went to the city of New Crobuzon and took notes and just wrote down what happened, not that he’s pulling all this out of his head. And the way he writes, I feel like I’m there with him, watching it unfold. I’m surprised to look up from the book and see that I’m still at my desk, and my lunchbreak is over. His books are immersive and intense and damn hard to summarize. Let me take a stab at it.
Isaac der Gremnebulin is a freelance scientist in the city of New Crobuzon. He’s a little self-absorbed, and easily distracted, and seems content to float along and just get by, focusing on whatever projects come his way, and keeping his khepri girlfriend (humanoid body, insect head, makes sculptures from her spit) a secret from the judgmental world.
Enter Plot Complication #1: Yagharek, a garuda (humanoid body, head and wings of a bird) comes to hire him. Yagharek has committed a terrible crime, incomprehensible to Isaac but unforgivable in garuda culture, and as punishment, his wings were cut off. He wants Isaac to figure out a way – science, magic, mechanical, whatever – to make him fly again. Isaac is fascinated by the challenge, and dives right in. In his research, he studies anything that flies. A mysterious caterpillar comes into his possession. It will eat nothing but the latest street drug, and grows to an enormous size.
The caterpillar makes a cocoon, and what comes out is Plot Complication #2: a giant, scary, lobotomizing carnivore moth. It hatches, eats Isaac’s roommate’s brain, and goes to meet its siblings, who then all terrorize the city. I know “scary moths” sounds silly, but these things are freaky ominous.
This is already too long and I haven’t even scratched the surface. There’s a scary mutant drugdealer, a crooked mayor, a kidnapping, lots of different plots and ideas to stop the moths (who also give the whole city nightmares, just by their presence), a giant babbling spider, many many weird creatures, and sentient robots. And all of it takes place in Mieville’s amazing world.
Isaac, his reporter friend Derkhan, and Yagharek go into hiding from the government (it’s complicated) and on the offensive to save the city from the monsters, and it’s all quite exciting. The ending was not as triumphant as it would have been if somebody else wrote it, but it seemed realistic. Still kind of gut-punchy, though. Fellow reviewer coryo called this book “a very deliberate sort of chaos,” and I totally agree. It’s a helluva ride.
Perdido Street Station: “Lights flickered on across its vast and untrustworthy topography, and it received the now-glowing trains into its bowels like offerings. The Spike skewered the clouds like a spear held ready, but it was nothing beside the station: a little concrete addendum to that great disreputable leviathan building, wallowing in fat satisfaction in the city-sea.”