Embassytown – China Mieville

A while back I was asking you all about your thoughts on genre fiction and said that I would try some books that were out of my normal reading ‘comfort zone’. The first book that I chose was ‘Embassytown’ by China Mieville which is said to be his most sci-fi of novels to date. I really struggle with sci-fi yet having read and really enjoyed his novel The City & The City’, which merged science fiction with an edgy crime thriller, and came away feeling like I had understood a genre I didn’t normally. So I had high hopes that with China holding my hand (figuratively of course) through the unknown world of unknown worlds and life forms I might just find myself fully immersed in a new world of reading genre.

I’d best get this first bit out the way and say that to try and describe ‘Embassytown’ to anyone who hasn’t read it yet it going to be hard work. Not because the book is completely flummoxing, though I will admit I had a pen and notepad to hand for the first 100 pages or so but that could simply be me, but because there are so many strands and themes and, well, ‘things’ encompassed in it that to try to define its 432 pages in one set of thoughts is going to be pretty tough. I could simply say that I am not the biggest sci-fi fan and yet I finished it and I really rather liked it, but that wouldn’t be enough would it. So here goes…

In another world, Areika the home of many life forms, we follow the story of Avice. Avice has returned to her homeland of Embassytown after spending many years as an immerser in the ‘immer’, a substance or lack of substance that can send you from star to star “the sea of space and time below the everyday”. As she returns at the bequest of her new husband Scile (she has been married thrice before to people of both sexes), a man of language, who wants to observe the way Embassytown operates and how the three species it hosts all communicate and live together.

This return leads her to look back from her childhood onwards and an event with The Hosts (an alien species comprised of a mixture of of winged insect and horse who speak simultaniously with two mouths, only the Ambassadors can understand, and who cannot lie), that made her literally become a story in the Areika consciousness that helps them bend the truth in the future, for if something happens it is truth? Well thats what Mieville sort of implies and its an interesting idea.  However on her return she finds that the homeland she knows is changing under the new rule of the Ambassador EzRa and something sinister has started and that something truly awful lies ahead, but in order to stop it Avice is going to have to do something that is almost impossible.

That is possibly the easiest, though by no means best, way of trying to describe the way the book starts. It’s hard to say more without giving away too much plot or discussing how Mieville throws in some unexpected, and often rather weird, twists as the book moves on. The thing is there are so many more strands to the book and for me the main one was the fact this is a book that is in some ways Mieville’s ode to language. The fact Avice actually becomes a story, or in fact a ‘simile’, I found fascinating, and this happens before the main story really gets started. I liked the fact that language could almost be a religion, though the book is also a tale of revolution.

Avice makes for an interesting narrator, if occasionally rather infuriating, as though you are told Avice’s ‘similie’ for the Hosts meant she had to eat something which caused her pain you never fully know what she went through. She does have this slight distance and mystery the whole way through the book even though you get snippets of her past and hints of her previous marriages etc she keeps something back. I always felt just a touch removed from her. Was this intentional, were we meant to question her as a narrator, is she a blank canvas on which we put our own feelings or create our own visions of the world Mieville has created? I was never one hundred percent sure. Interestingly it was characters like Ambassador EzRa that made the book come alive, there was something wonderfully creepy about the fact that unlike all the other Ambassadors these were not genetically cojoined twins with simulatneous thoughts and from the moment we met them the book seemed to light up, even if it was with a sinister and mysterious foreboding glow.

You see I am still left feeling that I haven’t actually done ‘Embassytown’ any favours of explained it well enough to do the book justice. I am sure it won’t be for everyone, and indeed the blurb does seem to miss out how much language is almost worshipped in this novel which could be a selling point, but if someone like me who knows very little about science fiction could get so deeply immersed in it then surely it’s got to be good, right? 8/10

This was kindly sent by the publishers.

A science fiction novel such as ‘Embassytown’ is unfortunately hardly likely to make it onto the Booker longlist simply because it’s a genre novel. This is a great shame because, to me at least, ‘Embassytown’ reads like a true celebration of language and words surrounded by an unfamiliar world that celebrates them too, surely that’s literature and what its all about at its most concentrated? Who knows, maybe this years judges could surprise us? I do feel like I owe this book a small apology because I simply can’t sum it up. Can anyone else who has read it do any better? Any other thoughts on any other Mievilles as I really want to read more, particularily ‘Kraken’, do let me know.


Filed under China Mieville, Macmillan Publishers, Review

17 responses to “Embassytown – China Mieville

  1. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about Mieville personally, but I have bought my boyfriend a couple of his books – “Perdido Street Station” and “Scar” – and he really enjoyed them; he mentioned that they’re both fantastic at taking in-depth looks at social issues and characters, but they can also be a bit gory, which I know puts some people off.

    • I hadn’t heard his work referred to as gory before, thats interesting. I have to say when I saw him speak I wasn’t sure on my thoughts with if I would like Perdido Street Station and Scar but now I have had success with this one who knows.

  2. Kraken is brilliant, Simon! I loved it and think you will really enjoy it too; the London setting will help you as you’ll be comfortable with it even with the scientific and fantastic elements.

    I attended a China Mieville event earlier this month and found him fascinating (he is impressively erudite, which is a description that doesn’t do his genius justice). I thought of you during it as he discussed people who don’t read sci-fi and struggle with it as an aesthetic (his mum is one such reader but she loves crime fiction so he wrote The City & the City for her but put his twist on it). He also mentioned literary prizes and their dismissal of genre fiction.

    Definitely read Kraken; I hope to read Embassytown soon.

    • I thought he was very impressive when I saw him speak up here recently too actually. I think some people might find his intellegence almost arrogant at points but I dont think its meant that way. He made me laugh a lot.

      I have Kraken high on the TBR though I have a stupid amount of other things high on the TBR too.

  3. I’m reading Embassytown right now and I’m struggling with it a bit. This is partly because it starts very slowly, and I’m not very patient about having to wait 100 pages for the story to really begin, and partly because Avice is oddly distant for a first person narrator. I don’t really understand her, and don’t think I trust her judgment or care to spend time in her company.

    I find Mieville a bit hit or miss. My favorite of his is The Scar, which is really brilliant, but very, very weird. However its narrator, Bellis Coldwine, is just as distant and unlikable as Avice. The book is remarkable enough that I was able to enjoy it despite that.

    • I hope you have finished it now and gotten on better with it Gail. You are right its rather slow starting and theres a lot of things to take into your brain but I think thats why the start is slower.

      I love the sound of brilliant but very, very weird.

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  5. I’m reading Kraken at the moment which I’m enjoying. It’s very different to The City & The City (which I loved) probably because it’s a little more accessible. I’m coming back to read your review of Embassytown once I’ve read it. But Mieville is a seriously impressive writer.

    • I think after Embassytown I need accesible Mieville again next, not because I am lazy – well not totally, but because I found Embassytown quite an experience and an occasionally hard one if rewarding at the same time. I just find I cant quite get so lost in those circumstances.

  6. Mieville is truly great! I’m reading The Scar now, and it flows much better than Perdido Street Station, his first novel.

    Mieville is like Jeff Vandermeer in many ways, but whereas Jeff is very big on creating a sensorium, Mieville creates a sociological study in his books. Jeff works with colours, tastes and smells, which is my own preference, while Mieville works with mapping interactions between different species and races, going into painstaking detail on topography and geography, and giving a very rational basis to his worlds. Both approaches really work and show how far modern genre fiction has come and how far ahead of SF/F TV and film it is.

    Mieville’s novels are very well researched and incredibly nuanced, and yet they’re also imaginative, creative and emotive.

    Mieville is every bit a literary writer, as is Jeff Vandermeer. It’s just that both of these superb, incandescent voices are considered ‘genre’ by an increasingly diminishing and niche literary establishment. And yet, they walk all over many mainstream commercial writers effortlessly.

    • I don’t like the genre thing. I dont really understand where it comes from and why on earth people havent stamped it out frankly. I know you need it for marketing to a point but it doesnt need to be looked down upon. I will shush before I start ranting lol.

  7. I am a science fiction and a Mieville fan and am waiting for Embassytown to arrive at my library. I think you’ve done an admirable job of describing a book that is difficult to describe, normal for Mieville! Try Kracken, I loved it.

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  10. Rav

    Embassytown is so powerful, I’m so gutted that I finished the book. I’ve never read a book like this before, genius!

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