Book review – Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Perdido Street StationI’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.

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6 thoughts on “Book review – Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

  1. Good review. I’ll have to check this author out.

    I think it’s interesting how you describe the physical aspects of reading this book since it’s big enough to hurt. I had a related experience with the book I’m currently reading. It’s not to big, but with the way it’s bound it has very narrow inner margins, which makes it a pain in the ass to read. I have to use great force to keep the pages open enough to see near-margin text. It occurs to me that both these problems will become passe once I adopt an ereader. The time for that is getting closer all the time.
    ~jon

  2. This reminded me of the idea that in English it’s considered bad writing to use the same word (esp an adjective).

    I think some other languages don’t have this and I’ve seen some scoffing at English for this (ie. you’re apparently meant to use 50 different synonyms over the course of a page).

    Does anyone know any specific details? I wonder how it’s affected English literature — it has some good effects but can lead to wankiness too.

    The other language I know (Russian) isn’t nearly as sensitive to this.

  3. Michael – it’s one of those generally accepted “writing rules” that too much word repetition doesn’t read well. Equally, trying too hard to avoid it often leads to “purple prose” or flowery writing. Either extreme is to be avoided really, and something in the middle is usually best.

    I was aware of it in this book especially because it’s something I can be guilty of in my own work. Not so much with prose in general, but certainly overuse of names.

    The other thing that often crops up in writing rules is to avoid all adverbs. That’s something that some people hang onto religiously, which again is best followed within reason and not to a fault. In my experience, judicious adverb use is far more effective than too much or none at all. Mieville is actually an excellent example of this practice.

    I’d be interested to know about how other languages approach their writing rules. In truth, all rules should be learned, followed as you develop your craft, and then ignored at your discretion as your ability as a writer improves. At least, that’s my opinion of the subject.

  4. I meant details about other languages — obviously English requires a medium but other languages have no problem with fiction saying “little” seven times in a paragraph.

    A much better rule than the adverb one is to look out for 2 adjectives next to each other — these are almost always cutable.

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