This book is one I’ve wanted to review for quite a while. It’s author China Miéville has won numerous awards for his contribution to fantasy. The first instalment of the Bas Lag Cycle, a trilogy of standalone works set in the same setting, Perdido Street Station is one of his many well received works. It won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2001, and was nominated for the 2002 Nebula Award and the Hugo Award, both for best novel. I didn’t learn any of this until after I had read it, so my opinion on finishing it was a fresh one and I was impressed to say the least. The book’s plot is complex and denies simple explanation however in summary it is about a scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, who is roped into helping a Garuda, a bird like creature, called Yagharek regain his wings. Eventually Issac’s experiments unleash a deadly race of moth like creatures into the city, which feed off people’s subconscious and leave them as vegetables.
However it is not the plot that is the main draw of this book, but the setting. The city of New Crobuzon is one the most diverse settings I have ever seen in any work of fantasy. The technological level is far above that of your average medieval fantasy, instead opting for a more industrial setting reminiscent of the Victorian era. The thing I like about this is that the work manages to avoid the steampunk label while still having technology to that effect, in part due to its use of magic. Since I think steampunk can at times lead to a bland and unrealistic portrayal of the Victorian era I was grateful that the setting didn’t feel “steampunk” to me.
The races are also a big draw to me, since they are in part what helped diversify the setting. Amongst the races are bug people, one of whom the protagonist is dating. The previously mentioned Garuda have a completely alien philosophy, which set up a brilliant plot twist later in the novel. There are more races than you can shake a stick at and none of them even come close to resembling the stereotypical elves, dwarves, hobbits etc. As a writer I’ve developed an increasing disdain for stereotyped fantasy races so I was pleasantly surprised to find such alien races. In fact this novel has inspired me in part to try and diversify races in my own writing.
Like other large novels I found myself asking if at points the novel had too many subplots to focus on for one novel. Towards the end I confess I got a little bit lost with all the subplots going on. However my biggest issue with the book is the beginning. It took a while before any real action started to come into it, with a lot of focus given to Yagharek’s problem before events with the moths finally kick off. Overall these two things give the book a slow pace. This is both beneficial and detrimental to my enjoyment of the book. On the one hand I just wanted the book to flow a little bit faster but the on the other I liked how much detail it given the setting. In fact it almost made the work feel like an epic all rolled up into one book.
I liked the detail that went into this book, and it nullifies most of the issues of the plot. Overall I felt like the book was an exercise in world building, and one that I felt worked. After seeing a number of secondary world fantasy (fantasy set in its own, internally consistent world) which are a bit on the generic side I felt a breath of fresh air from reading this book. For anyone who is into world building and wants to move beyond generic fantasy settings, this book is the perfect starting point in terms of inspiration. This book is probably the most original fantasy book I’ve seen in a while and I will likely find myself referring back to it time and time again for years to come.
IN A WORD: UNIQUE