“Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth.”
With this first line, China Mieville begins our journey into the heart of his vast fantasy metropolis, New Crobuzon. It’s a heaving, vicious and chaotic beast; filled with a host of bizarre sentient species and a sprawling network of train lines, culminating in the heart of the city: Perdido Street Station.
Perdido Street Station is the story of Isaac der Grimnebulin, fringe scientist and research extraordinaire. When Isaac is hired by a Garuda (a sentient bird-like species) named Yagharek to restore his powers of flight, Isaac sees the potential to apply some of his more bizarre theories to something tangible, and proceeds to examine a host of different flying species, to see just what it would take to get Yagharek off the ground again. But through a series of unfortunate events (Yup) Isaac finds himself in possession of something far more dangerous than he realises. And when that thing is unleashed on the city of New Crobuzon, it will take all of Isaac’s considerable genius to stop everyone from coming to a horrifying end.
This is China Mieville’s second novel, and it is truly enormous, both in scope and narrative. Normally, 300 pages of Mieville is enough to get my brain spinning with ideas for months on end. Suffice to say, I won’t be forgetting Perdido Street Station any time soon. It is jam-packed to bursting with elements of the fantastic which are always completely and utterly original. Every page has something new to absorb; be it a weird creation, a bizarre monster, an ingenious idea, or just Mieville’s ever-striking prose. I’ve read Mieville before and so had a small idea of what to expect, but with this book I just wanted to absorb every sentence – every word.
The characters that Mieville has created in Perdido Street Station are all fully rounded individuals – nobody, except perhaps the villainous Mr. Motley, is black or white. No-one that simple. Isaac is the novel’s central protagonist, but there are plenty of moments, particularly towards the end of the novel, where he makes decisions which are questionable at best. Mieville also manages to give the non-human characters personalities of their own, all affected by their cultural backgrounds and life in New Crobuzon, and the rest of the outside world (aka Bas-Lag).
But the real main character of this novel is New Crobuzon itself. It comes alive in ways I haven’t seen in any other single novel. The only other fantasy city I can think of which has this level of depth and realism is Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork, and that has developed over many years and many books. New Crobuzon is alive from the first page – as Yagharek, an outsider, much like the reader, is introduced to every physical element of the city as it slowly envelopes him, the further in he travels. It’s a real masterwork of fantasy creation, and I can see why it is always placed so highly when discussions of fantasy settings take place – despite Bas-Lag only featuring in three novels to date.
The plot itself is perhaps the books weakest attribute. Mieville spends much of the early stages of the novel setting the scene and introducing us to New Crobuzon, that the plot barely moves forward in the first 150 pages. Although I personally didn’t have a problem with this (as the setting was an absolute joy to read) – I did notice that it began to get a bit much in the later stages of the book, when the plot catches up with Mieville and he has to race to tie everything towards a climax. Ultimately, it’s a bug hunt – but this is China Mieville we’re talking about – so those bugs are far from simple. Once Mieville sets up his players, the endgame is fast, frantic and dripping with tension. The ending is quite shocking and, thematically, the perfect closure for a book which puts the city at the heart of everything.
I really enjoyed Perdido Street Station. It took me about 10 days to read, but it really was a joy to soak up Mieville’s world, despite how dirty it made me feel at times. Its plot is perhaps underwritten – despite the fact I would not suggest lengthening the book any further. Ultimately, though, Perdido Street Station is about New Crobuzon. It introduces a world which is so well developed, I’m dying to dive into the next Bas-Lag novel, The Scar, as soon as possible. As someone else has suggested to me, Perdido Street Station is the work of a master craftsman at the top of his game. All I have to say is, if this isn’t the top of his game – I’m extremely excited to see what is.