So, how to discuss this book? It is utterly unlike anything I've read before. It's my third China Mieville book, and I've enjoyed every single one. The sheer imagination of this guy awes me. The descriptions are beautiful and verbose - and I know some people get bogged down in those descriptions and turned off by the erudite vocabulary, but for me, it's all part of settling down with one of these books. It takes a shift in my head to let this prose wash over me, but I feel that the descriptive passages, although plentiful, are also essential.
Let me tell you why. One of the most brilliant things about this book is the city itself, New Crobuzon. These descriptive passages make that city come alive, take on its own character in the book. But not in a facile or easy way. It's not anthropomorphic, it's not cute, it doesn't sit up and talk and want attention. But after the first chapter, I was convinced that the city itself was as essential a character as anyone else in the book. That ability to make that city come alive without needing to dumb it down or make it more human - to have the life of a city be alive and yet as alien as, well, a city would be. It's a remarkable feat. In many of his books, Mieville explores city life in ways I've never seen before, but strongly respond to.
The people who live in the city are equally fascinating. New Crobuzon is a city of numerous races - humans are the largest segment of the population, but there are also substantial enclaves of what seem to be some Egyptian-inspired races - human bodies with the heads of scarabs, mostly human bodies with bird heads and wings. (Although, the book points out, those races see humans as having khepri or garuda bodies with weird human heads.) There are vodyanoi, whose faces are in what would be our stomachs, and can shape water. There are the cactacae, cactus-people. There are power differentials between these groups, which sometimes flare into violence.
Class and the relationship between the powerful and ruled are also main themes in the book. The events are set against labour unrest, militia crackdowns, and suppression of the independent press. Alliances and distrust are sown throughout the book, and some of the powers that be in the city emerge more than halfway through, and amazing idea follows amazing idea, and not every single one lands perfectly, but they take my breath away nonetheless.
Isaac, the main character, is a scientist on the outs with academia. He is also having a transgressive interracial love affair with one of the khepri, the races with giant scarab beetles for heads. Lin, who is an artist, is crossing both that line and one of gender, as khepri women mate with male grubs only for procreation, and for pleasure with each other. Isaac is approached by a garuda whose wings have been torn away by the justice of his clan, who desperately wants to fly again. Isaac delves into the underworld to get specimens for his research into flight, and makes some fortunate and some unfortunate connections.
But when nightmares start to rise in New Crobuzon and drooling, mindless denizens start to show up in alleyways, they might trace back to some of Isaac's experiments - to no one's greater horror than his. The city government calls on ancient and unknowable forces to combat them, the underworld gets involved, and yet it is a small group outside of either of those power structures who fight frantically to actually solve the problem.
The slake-moths are fucking creepy, and there were moments when I had to put the book down and away to distance myself for a while before I picked it up to go on again. I'm not good with horror, and this almost bridged over into that territory - and yet, I had to see how it finished. At the very end, there is a move into different systems of justice and different ways of looking at crime, and I found that difficult territory. I mention it specifically to give a warning to those who don't want to read about sexual assault - it's not easy stuff, although it isn't facile either. But is it given enough room, if you want to go down that path?
This is a complex book, a beautifully descriptive and audacious book, and it is difficult, in language and content. You have to be on your toes to keep up with this one, and most of the time I was. And very happy to have been so.
I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees