My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon Book 1) by China Mieville
Some like to characterize this novel as steam-punk. I would be hard pressed to prove that as a valid genre though it's not for want of China Meiville filling it with spattering of elements that might easily take people there. There are some gaslight elements and perhaps that same type of despair rooted in much of the landscape of Dicken's novels that were contemporary to the time of Victorian Age. China Mieville has included many elements that make this closer to a Science Fiction Fantasy with heavy emphasis on the fantasy. Magic and industry that might mirror near to steam and gear and modified humans mixed with several alien races of Birdmen, Bug-men, Cacti-men, and fish-men like something out of Flash Gordon. But they've all landed in the city of despair named New Crobuzon. This is a sprawling and ambitious novel that might often offer more than many readers can chew and often leaves distaste and dissatisfaction.
The novel begins with a first person account from someone heading into the great city. It is this description we want to look at.::
The river twists and turns to face the city. It looms suddenly, massive, stamped upon the landscape. Its light wells up around the surrounds, the rock hills, like bruise-blood. Its dirty towers glow. I am debased. I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt into the sky even now in the deep night.
The reader should take note of this, because this sets the mood for the remainder of the novel. It's as though when it drops into third person narrative that it is still Yagharek telling the story from his lofty yet fallen position of someone force marched to a place of death when his spirit is in the sky. Yagharek is of the garuda, an intelligent species of manlike bird, and has, through what he'd have the reader believe is a perversion of justice, had his wings savagely cut from him. He searches out Isaac as someone he believes might be able to restore to him the power of flight.
Isaac is a failed academic who now is a researcher who specializes in both the scientific and magic though he eschews those who modify humans, because most modifieds are from the cities perverted justice system: performing modifications that fit the crime of the convicted criminals.
Isaac's one bright spot in life is Lin.
Lin is an artist; and an insectoid of the khepri. Khepri are similar to humans; except China uses Lin to describe this for the reader to give it a bit from the other direction.
Humans have khepri bodies, legs, hands; and the heads of shaved gibbons, she had once told him.
The novel is a grim dark fantasy that frames a second story that is a horror of unstoppable monster moths with a destructive purpose that might compare to the creatures in the movie Aliens. Isaac and Lin could be considered the main protagonists, but there are many more and the way that the narrator describes the city it makes New Crobuzon as much a character as it is a setting and that might be what gets in the way when the horror starts.
To compound the image of the city as a character we have Isaac early on compare himself to the city when talking to Yagharek.
"I think of myself as the main station for all the schools of thought. Like Perdido Street Station. You know of it?" Yagharek nodded. "Unavoidable, ain't it: ****ing massive great thing." Isaac patted his belly, maintaining the analogy.
Isaac goes on to tell Yagharek that he thinks that's what he needs; which Yagharek earlier echoed as his reason for coming to the city. Later Yagharek speaks of the city as his unwanted companion when he tries to hide from it on the roof of Isaac's building.
So it chastises me when I lie there, suddenly threatening to pull me from my perch into the wide stinking river, clutching my feathers, fat petulant air warning me not to leave it; but I grip the roof with my claws and let the healing vibrations pass from Grimnebulin's mind through the crumbling slate into my poor flesh.
It's Isaac's obsession with the science, the knowledge behind trying to help Yagharek that leads to the ultimate error that helps cause the later horror; just as it is Lin's obsession with her art that puts her in danger with the gangster Mr. Motley. And ultimately both become the recipe for tragedy.
Because the city takes on a life of its own, it dominates every chapter and protracts the action by lengthening the narrative throughout. Even during the tensest moments with the Moths sucking the life out of the city there are long moments of continual description often adding more of the same gritty touches that pervade the entire novel, as though the narrator fears we might forget where we are while under the thrill of the hunt.
There are three agencies working against each other throughout the framed story of the terror: Isaac's group; the government forces; and the underworld. This doesn't include such fascinating characters as the Weaver and the Artificial Intelligent Construct Council. The Weaver would almost be a deus ex machina if it weren’t for the fact that it seemed quite erratic about its purpose and allegiance; and it seemed more interested in observing Isaac and his Chaos engine at work, than in helping. Weaver also for some inexplicable reason collected ears from most of Isaac's team.
Now to get to some rough parts.
The city as a character begins early on to get in the way, because it often is redundant in showing the filth of the city and it always interferes with the action because the readers have to take the long way around to get somewhere. What I mean is the shortest distance between two points in New Crobuzon is always somewhere new that desires a long gruesome description before they can walk through.
There are no redeemable characters in this story and ironically the one that seemed to garner this reader’s sympathy was the one that disappears for a majority of the horror part of the story. Lin was an outsider by choice since she left the khepri community in the city when she felt she couldn't live the way they do and it interfered with her creativity. So her weaknesses and vices and vulnerabilities seemed to make her more human than most of the human characters in the story. Her weakness leads to her involvement with Mr. Motley and subsequently her removal from a good portion of the story.
Where often as a reader I look for changes in the character, either to the better or the worse, to take place during the book on some internal level; these people seemed only to be changed by external influences and are pushed along by events and seem to act more the victims of fate. Their moral compasses are all over the place with true north being only what pertains to their selves; while freely condemning others whose sins seem no greater than their own.
Perdido Street Station joins those books I love to hate and I'd recommend it with some few caveats to people who enjoy dystopic tales of grim dark and those who enjoy horror: keeping in mind that sometimes the tension gets stretched thin by the journey there.
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