From what I’d read of reviews, I’d assumed Perdido Street Station would have the one thing that most Vexes me: so much focus on style as to neglect substance. (I generally avoid books that I think will Vex me like this, which is why I will never read Hal Duncan’s Vellum). As I now think happened with His Majesty’s Dragon, there was more emphasis on that one aspect of the book than it deserves. There: Napoleonic-wars-with-dragons! obscured comments on characterization, writing, dragon biology, faithfulness to historical setting, and just about everything else that the book had going for it (or not). Here: convoluted language! Colorful language! Language you can’t concentrate through!
Except that I concentrated through this just fine. There were a few words that puzzled me, but that is what the dictionary is for. I actually wound up noticing the number of times characters…spoke like…this far more than I noticed the language.
But even other than that, there were things I think I would be annoyed by in most novels. Viewpoint-bouncing, sometimes frantic. Corruption among the government pretty much taken for granted (which at one time led me to believe that Miéville was proposing an evil universe, the opposite of a moralistic one where the good are rewarded and the bad punished, but no more plausible). Minor characters sacrificed without a qualm. A miraculous rescue that just cuts around the edge of deus ex machina. Descriptions of magic that reduce it to such scientific terms as to make it sound more boring than fantastical.
And yet, it all works together (sometimes tripping a high-wire, sometimes bouncing like a wallaby on the end of a very thin limb). This book is, for me, the exemplar of why merely describing a story that you have a cool idea for—or creating a profile of a character—or hitting on an unexpected twist to a common plot or theme—makes it impossible to predict that the story which emerges out of it will be any good. You hit on the cool thing, and you get to sit around admiring it for a while. Then you have to actually write it. And what has wings in theory may crash the first time you try to get it to fly.
I think Perdido Street Station flies.
The basic plot is not very simple: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a rogue scientist who researches anything that catches his fancy, is hired by a garuda, a flightless bird-man, to restore his wings to him. The challenge catches Isaac’s fancy in its turn, and he dives into his research. At the same time, Isaac’s lover, Lin, an artist who creates sculptures of her spit, is hired to create a life-size statue of Motley, the city’s most dangerous gangster. In the background are subplots centered around Lin’s friend Derkhan, who works on the illegal newspaper Runagate Rampant, and the criminal “friends” Isaac hires to help him with his research.
The subplots spin around each other, barely connected at first, but held together more and more surely by the sense of the city. New Crobuzon is a place that has a flavor of its own. It’s hard to say more than that. It’s not just “decadent city,” or “mixed-race metropolis,” or “place where life is nasty, brutish, and short,” the way that many interchangeable cities in fantasy could be. It has a character and a cast the way that, for me, Martin’s Westeros does. Those are compounded of the physicality of the city, the actions of the people who live there, the atmosphere Miéville assigns to it, the fact that dozens of different races and classes are eking out existences there—and many of the minor players Miéville hits on are ignorant of the actions, motivations, or both of the main characters—and the attention lavished on the “shadow-stories,” the bits of history and legend that give weight to the background but are not fully explained.
Yet, if the book only gave one sense of the city, I don’t think I could have gotten through it. Isaac and the other main characters commit acts they think of as immoral, and are often unsympathetic in other, more minor ways. The city has next to no beauty. What beauty there is swiftly gets broken. Everyone is placed in danger as a consequence of Isaac’s research (and, admittedly, corruption buried in the city government and its criminal class long before Isaac’s research began). Gore and pain are constant. The style sometimes succeeds, sometimes founders, and I really could have used fewer of the damn ellipses. There were times when I came close to thinking of Perdido Street Station as I did The Etched City: a triumphant half-achievement, broken by its own meandering and too much reliance on a few aspects of the story without bothering to tend to the others.
But the city can alter. Miéville moves it around, from major preoccupation of the omniscient narrator to backdrop to threatened victim to home of the main characters to incredibly violent place to scene of setpieces. The setting becomes a hub for the rest of the story, instead of its sole jewel. Things always seemed just about to collapse; as I said above, there was one point where I did snort and roll my eyes, because I don’t consider the minor mentions that happened before the miracle sufficient buildup for the miracle itself. And then the city changed again, and I went right back to being interested.
In my terms, this is a brutal fantasy. It’s not for everyone; for every book or series I’d call brutal fantasy, I know people who don’t merely dislike it but loathe it intensely. So I’d read the first chapter—not just the italicized passage it opens with, as that is from the first-person perspective of a character who’s not a native of New Crobuzon, and thus doesn’t give you the full flavor—and see if you like it, or can tolerate it.
I’m not sure if I’ll like The Scar as well, since that moves out of New Crobuzon and deprives Miéville of his ability to use the alchemy of his setting. But I’m looking forward to trying.