Friday, February 18, 2011

Giant Squid Theft! Floating Pirate Cities! Mosquito-People!! Book Reviews: China Mieville

I only discovered China Mieville about 2 or 3 years ago, but he's become one of my favorite fantasy authors. What always draws me back to his books is his amazing ability to completely change his style to suit the story he's telling. He has a fantastic ability to play with language that never fails to impress and entertain me. What ties all of his very different stories together is a common theme of surrealism and urban landscapes. And as the title of this post might suggest, he tends to deal in the bizarre.

The first Mieville book I read was Un Lun Dun. It might be the most different from the rest of his work, since it's a YA novel. But like the others, Un Lun Dun is the story of a fantastic city that exists not quite in the real world. This novel is full of eccentric characters and a bric-a-brac city that reminded me strongly of a Miyazaki anime. Perhaps my favorite thing about it though was that the true heroes of the story were the ones who saved the day not because they were destined to do so but because it was the right thing to do. Way to break a tired fantasy trope; very nicely done. 

Un Lun Dun also boasts what is probably his most eccentric and lovable cast of characters, including a boy who's half ghost, carnivorous giraffes, Extreme Librarians (Bookaneers), BINJAS (garbage bin-ninja hybrids) and a man in a deep diver suit who is actually a school of fish with a collective consciousness. And the book comes illustrated by Mieville! 

Binja: half garbage bin, half awesome.

Next I read The Scar. This novel is set in his Perdido Street Station universe, but works well as a stand-alone. The universe is set in a vaguely Victorian style period, with large European-like cities and colonies in distant places, and a very wordy Gothic writing style. This style probably won't work for everyone, but I personally enjoyed it. If you are going to read a novel from this universe, I really recommend this one. The Scar is about a woman fleeing her city for a life in the colonies, who is abducted by pirates and taken to a floating pirate city. If that doesn't sell you on it, the mosquito-people monsters, the political intrigue and the "Scar" itself (a rift in time and space) ought to suck you in. 

Kraken was a big leap in genre after reading The Scar. Kraken is basically an urban fantasy, set in modern London. It's about the theft of a giant squid, by a squid-worshiping underground cult, who are plunged into a war with a number of other London cults, magicians and gangs, all while the Kraken-apocalypse looms nearer.The main character is an Arthur Dent-like (but intelligent) average guy who gets dragged into the whole mess; his normalcy next to everyone else's fanaticism gives the novel a tongue-in-cheek, sort of dark-comedy feel.

My most recent read was The City & the City. It was by far the most mature and thought-provoking of the novels I've read by him so far. It was also another huge change in style and genre; The City and the City is a crime novel set in a "fantasy" setting, though I think this novel is somewhere in between fantasy and surrealism. It's the story of a detective investigating a murder in a city which exists in the same spatial location as another city, but the citizens of each go through life "unseeing" each other. This doesn't mean they can't see one another, or that one city is unknown to the other. They are simply socialized to pretend not to see one another. There is a secret, big brother organization called Breach which comes for anyone who breaks the taboo. And to make things really interesting, there's a possible third city hidden in between the other two, with a mysterious agenda...

As much as I loved the other novels I've mentioned here, this was far and away my favorite. The style is very simple, not wordy like Mieville tends to be, and reads like you're watching an old Noir film set somewhere in Eastern Europe. Unlike Kraken and the Scar, Mieville clearly has a message (maybe several) to deliver with this novel. It's a beautifully written story about cultural taboos and the consequences of breaking them.