Category Archives: China Mieville

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.

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Filed under China Mieville, Macmillan Publishers, Review

The City & The City – China Mieville

Sometimes I can get cross at myself as a reader (please tell me some of you do this too), as you are reading a really entertaining and interesting book such as ‘The City and the City’ by China Mieville yet because of everything else going on in your life you go into some sort of funk and you can’t read. Its not the books fault, and really its not your fault as the reader its just life, but if you are like me then you get really annoyed with yourself. However the sign of a good book is when you can have a break from it for a week or two rejoin the plot and characters and not only be straight back into the story you are also swept away by it again once more and this was one such book and considering its synopsis I actually thought I would struggle to get into it at all the first time.

The title ‘The City & The City’ really hints at what you might be expecting from this book (I don’t think China Mieville would have been able to get away with calling it ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ which could have been a good option) as the reader is rather quickly drawn into a world we almost know, a dystopian idea of some part of the edge of Europe, we must also accept that two cities can actually reside in the same place. It sounds complicated and like it might be hard work, which I thought it was going to be, but Mieville somehow makes the whole idea seem incredibly easy to imagine.

In the city of Beszel people are aware that there is another city, Ul Qoma, that occupies the same space as them and yet as they grow up they are trained in the art of ‘unseeing’. This comes into jeopardy on occasions when either something like a car crash happens in one city and for a while everyone can see both, possibly to do with the shock or the extremity of the situation. As we find ourselves in Beszel a murder of a young woman that seems unsolvable has occurred, and its not until Inspector Borlu, our protagonist, realises someone could be murdering people in Ul Qoma and leaving them in Bezsel that ‘unseeing’ may have to go out of the window and that ‘Breach’ (which is an all seeing all knowing eye, slightly in the vein of Orwell’s Big Brother in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’) may have to be consulted and assessed.

To say too much more would be to undo some incredibly clever twists, turns and imagination that Mieville creates and passes onto any reader coming to the book afresh and I wouldn’t want to ruin that. I will say that the murder mystery does take on a further twist or seven as we discover the murdered girl was looking for a third ancient city (yep, one more but fear not by this point you will be open to eight cities being in the one place as Mieville makes them so clearly different) which brings a whole new historical level to the book and that the powers that be may be hiding something creating a taught thriller that will have you furiously reading to its incredible dénouement.

Mieville has officially won me over with this novel, the characters are fully built, no one dimensional inspector in sight as some authors might have gone for in favour of story over substance. I know in the hands of another author most of this novel could have gone over my head and frustrated me to the point of throwing my book across the room. Not so in the case of Mieville, he’s clearly a masterful writer and incredibly inventive and clever but without a hint of smugness ever appearing on the page. ‘The City and the City’ is a book that has to be read to be believed, and for someone who doesn’t normally go for this type of book Mieville has gained a huge new fan! It’s a book to get lost in. 9/10 (I actually wanted it to be longer and unfold a little though what he achieves in only 312 pages is incredible.)

So I have found a new author now who I want to read the entire works of. In fact I was most annoyed that this was from the library and I had to give it back. I think had I not had the rush of that deadline, someone selfishly requested it (ha); I might have started the book over and loved it even more. That’s not the book or authors fault, and not really mine its just sods law. I think Mieville fans it seems were slightly let down by this book, have any of you read it? If this is his poorest as some, not all, of his fans believe which books are his best I wonder? Can any of you could recommend where I should head to next, which Mieville books have you read and been blown away by?

This book I borrowed from the library, and returned rather grumpily as I would have liked to have it on my shelves to read again one day, its one of those books you could get something new from every time you read it.

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Filed under Books of 2010, China Mieville, Pan MacMillan, Review