When I was reading this book, a friend asked me what it was about. I didn’t really know how to respond, because this book is insane. Eventually I said something like, “It’s about humans…and other creatures that are loosely based on various mythologies?…in a parallel-world steampunk magic police state. And also they are fighting these crazy dream-sucking moths.”
And that’s true! But there are also mob bosses, red light districts, cactus-people, water-magicians, sentient machines, scientists in secret labs, and, my favorite character, a giant multidimensional spider.
So there’s a lot going on.
The story begins with Isaac, a mad scientist of sorts, and his artist girlfriend Lin, a khepri (more on that later.) Isaac is approached by Yagharek, a garuda, or big humanish bird creatures. Yagharek was punished for a crime in his homeland with the removal of his wings – and as you might imagine, this is deeply humiliating and existentially frustrating for a bird-man. Yagharek asks Isaac to help him fly again. Isaac is intrigued, and starts his research by collecting specimens of flying things. One of those specimens is a fat, weird caterpillar. Meanwhile, Lin is commissioned to do a secretive portrait of a powerful, moneyed creature. From there, things just get weirder. I don’t want to give too much away, so if this set up intrigues you, just go get the book already!
One thing that Mieville really excels at is taking these bizarre ideas and keeping them human-ly relate-able. For instance, Lin is a khepri–a human woman’s body with a beetle for a head. I mean, what? How does that even work?! But Mielville makes it work, because he’s thought about the khepri’s place in society, he’s given Lin real emotions and motivations, and a real story arc that makes sense. The khepris have a district in New Crobuzon, and their own culture, belief system, biology. And he’s done that for everyone – every weird race that lives in the outskirts of the city, all the weirdos that end up banding together to fight for their lives and their city. (What must this guy’s storyboard look like?!)
Mielville is really, really good at writing cities. He paints New Crobuzon and its sights and landmarks with such grit and color, I can imagine them as if in a memory. And, unlike the previous Mieville book I read, the characters and action in this one are shown rather than told, and are complex while keeping them on the right side of “relateable.”
If I had a complaint, it’s that it’s TOO realistic. Many characters meet their end, and quickly. The ending is, I hate to say it, kind of a downer. (And it’s a long, heavy book – I need an emotional break before the second one.) But it’s satisfying and feels true–I closed the book and thought, well, how else could it have ended? He never promised anything else. The struggles of our heroes were real. And in real life, endings might not be tidy, but they can still be good.
As Mr. Fiat Luxury said, “It’s the kind of book that you wish you could read for the first time, again.”