For my birthday a few weeks ago, I received a book I wouldn’t otherwise have bought myself: China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. Fantasy isn’t my normal thing, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.
I’m impressed. Yes, there is a small roving band of adventurer-types that fit the fantasy trope, but they don’t exhibit the standard Conan-style behaviour at all, and they only have a very minor part in the story. And yes, magic, but magic that appears to be bounded by science.
I guess I’d describe the world as ‘steampunk in a fantasy setting’. To pick two examples: the world has computers, but they don’t appear to run on anything as complicated as transistors (and they take punched cards); and metal welding is a skill that either be done through physics or magic (though, if I remember correctly, the word ‘magic’ doesn’t get used much, if at all, in the book).
I haven’t mentioned the plot yet, and there’s a reason for that. Like Lord of the Rings, the plot’s not really the point, it’s enjoyable enough simply for the chance to inhabit the world. And that’s good, because after the world-building, the plot is a bit of a let-down: basically it’s a bug-hunt, a re-run of Aliens.
That said, the world-building is easily some of the best I’ve seen. There’s a variety of races presented in the book, and unlike, say, Pratchett’s Discworld, the races actually act differently, rather than as a homogeneous mass of humans in different bodies. There are more alien characters here than I’ve seen in many science-fiction novels (and Miéville’s Weaver would fit perfectly into one of Iain M. Banks Culture novels).
It helps that none of the characters are perfect. The good guys do bad things, and the bad guys — with the exception of the Alien stand-ins — aren’t entirely cardboard cut-outs either.
With all this magic and suchlike flying about, I was a little worried that the author would have to end the story by means of a deus ex machina (especially after some rather powerful characters were introduced). Happily, that wasn’t the case.
At 880 pages, it’s of a similar length and pace as Stephenson’s Quicksilver, but while I felt that Quicksilver dragged on and on without a great deal happening for page upon page, Station involves you immediately in the lives of the protagonists. Even though the story takes a while to actually hit the main plotline, it doesn’t seem like you’re sitting around waiting for something to happen.
So, Perdido Street Station, highly recommended.
I also got a second Miéville book for my birthday — I’m now really looking forward to reading it.