I’ve been reading a lot of short stories over recent months and it’s been a while since I got stuck into a proper novel. On deciding that it was time to read long fiction again I turned to this brick of a book I picked up in a second hand book store some time ago. I’ve heard a lot of talk about China Mieville over the last couple of years and he’s clearly something of a flavour of the moment. I don’t know anyone that’s read his stuff and didn’t like it. So when I saw Perdido Street Station on the shelf for $4, I decided to give him a go myself.
I got the trade paperback edition of this book and it really is a brick. Just over 700 pages of heavy paper makes this book physically uncomfortable to read. It makes your wrists ache holding it up. And it’s taken me ages to read it because I haven’t taken it anywhere, so I’ve only read it sitting at home. But this enormous tome contains a tale of incredible depth and imagination.
Mieville is a writer with a rich and intricate gift for prose. Pretty much my only gripe with the actual writing is the overuse of certain words and character names. I’m surprised his editor didn’t thin this stuff out. There are instances of the word “little” four times in the same paragraph, for example, or the same descriptive word used twice in two sentences. And he repeats a character’s name numerous times when we know that’s who he’s talking about. Isaac did this then Isaac did that then Isaac did the other, and so on. It stands out because otherwise the writing is quite beautiful and literary. I had to reach for the dictionary on several occasions reading this and that’s unusual for me. And good, because I love learning new words.
Mieville has an imagination that must make his skull ache. The story is set in the imaginary, steampunk city of New Crobuzon. His impression of this city is fantastic, clearly based on a kind of London with added madness. The city is populated with all kinds of strange creatures, from bug headed kephri to amphibious vodyanoi, to mechanically remade humans to bird-people called garuda. Plus the usual gammut of messed up humans. The descriptions of people and locations is laid on in minute detail. You can hear, feel, smell and taste New Crobuzon and its denizens on every page.
The story is a convoluted affair that centers around two main plot ideas. One is the story of a wingless garuda desperately searching for a way to fly again and the other, as a direct result of the first, is a terrible threat released over New Crobuzon that leads our main players on a terrifying and deadly quest across the city. There are certain instances when things the characters need just seem to pop up conveniently at the right time, like the Construct Council and Jack Half-a-Prayer, which is unfortunate but forgivable. I was particularly impressed by the way the main characters kept crossing paths with other people trying to deal with the threat over New Crobuzon. It was interesting to see a story that didn’t have one band of heroes doing all the work while everyone else was oblivious. Everyone knew something was up, lots of people knew exactly what was up and many peoplle were trying to fix it.
The book is full of grit, dirt, blood and horror. It’s also full of flawed characters and their various attempts at doing the right thing. It’s an incredibly well realised world and society and an incredibly complex tale very well told. In places it drags a little bit, but all the time you’re in New Crobuzon, learning more about it and its populace, so it’s time well spent. One thing that did confuse me though – why was the book called Perdido Street Station? That particular architectural character does crop up several times throughout the book, but it’s certainly not a main player in any way. I’m at a bit of a loss as to why it was chosen for the title. I can think of several better titles, but that’s hardly relevant, I suppose.
I can see why people are fans of China Mieville and I think I’ll be reading more of his stuff.