Perdido Street Station
By China Miéville
If I had to come up with one word to describe my experience of reading this book it would be "dirty." And I don't mean that in the sense of "erotic" or "immoral" or "forbidden"--though perhaps I should mention that there are several scenes that could easily be described as perverse. But, no, I literally mean it as "covered in filth." China Miéville has created a setting--the city of New Crobuzon--that is squalid and grimy. His vision of urban life in this fantastic world is bleak and alienating. New Crobuzon is full of downtrodden poor, corrupt politicians, self-serving criminals, all grubbing in the muck of their environment. Reading Perdido Street Station I felt like I was crawling through sewage much of the time.
Nonetheless, it was compelling. Despite the setting and the prose that was, at times, overblown and almost cheesy, I had trouble putting this book down.
But perhaps I should back up a bit and explain the book some. I had a hard time getting my arms around Perdido Street Station at first--the entry is a little jarring and there weren't the usual genre pointers to help me get my bearings. To give you a little start there, Perdido Street Station is part horror and part fantasy, set in a world where magic mixes with steampunk technology. It's weird. Of course I mean "weird" in the way we normally use the word these days, but also in the older sense, the kind that invokes that eerie feeling you get where you know something is wrong, but can't quite figure out what. The story centers around a brilliant but sloppy scientist named Isaac, who, at the beginning of the book, is approached by a half-man, half-bird creature that has lost its wings and wants to fly again. About the first third to half of the book is spent showing you the city and its denizens, and setting up the action that explodes in the rest of the book. You meet Isaac's part-insect artist girlfriend, Lin, and several of his friends and associates--things move a little slowly, but everything steadily and kind of creepily builds before terror explodes into the plot about halfway through. The climax and the action leading to it is harrowing, and the eventual resolution is well done, even if it also leaves a taste like ashes in your mouth.
I think my problem with this book is its negativity, its darkness. Mind you, I'm not looking for sunshine and rainbows in my fiction--I loved Glen Cook's Black Company novels, for example--but Miéville's story is willfully, even oppressively dark, like he's throwing it in your face. Reading a bit about him, I learned that he's in Michael Moorcock's philosophical camp of fantasy writers, disdaining the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien for comforting his readers instead of challenging them. Yet, for all that reading this book made me want to take a shower, I didn't find it challenging, exactly. It didn't present any new ideas or push me to see familiar things in new ways. Rather, it reminded me of a high school kid from the suburbs with piercings, painted nails, and all-black clothes, rebellious for rebellion's sake.
Still, don't get me wrong, it's a well-crafted story. It took a little while, but I did connect with the characters, and the bittersweet ending definitely affected me. I think I'd even say I liked it. This sounds like pretty thin praise, I suppose, but given how unpleasant the setting was, I think the fact that I'd say I liked it at all speaks to how good it was. If you like your fantasy dark, I'd say this book very well may be for you.
Started: 5/12/2009 | Finished: 5/22/2009