028. Review of Embassytown by China Miéville.

For the first time in perhaps three or four months, I finally started and finished a book within a reasonable amount of time — a book, that is, that I chose to read myself, not one that was assigned to me for a class. And let’s be honest: as good as required books can be (I’m thinking of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy for Irish Lit, Ariel Dorfman’s In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land for Latin American Lit & Cinema, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus books for Literature of Extreme Situations), they’re still required. You still have to read them for homework, you still have to pick them apart and examine each miniscule, painstaking syllable for some hidden meaning. And even when you don’t have to do that, they still have a cover with invisible-to-everyone-else flashing neon lights that spell out I AM HOMEWORK.

So on my two weeks of vacation between the end of spring semester and the beginning of summer semester, I finished Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter which, in brief, was wonderfully written stylistically (you can practically hear Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter and co. reading every line in the book. The show’s screenwriter was very, very faithful to the original text. Minus some annoying plot things. And in general, I prefer the show to the book.

I also started the bestselling The Book Thief which so far I am liking. But I quit reading in the middle — not because it bored me, but because a friend at Random House got the new China Miéville book in and sent it to me free of charge.

China Miéville is by far one of my favourite writers. He knows how to turn a phrase. He has a love for language that is really evident, and his imagination is incredible. He is one of those writers who really knows how to write many different genres, and he has, although he has a prevailing love for science fiction and fantasy, which he has melded into a genre called New Weird Fiction, of which he is one of the great pioneers. But it’s all very literary; it’s complex in plot, the characters are distinctive and original, and there are many, many deeper themes and meanings, some of which are completely lost on me, as an American reader who is unfamiliar with the English political system, and with politics in general (Miéville is a Marxist; I have been told by physical readers, reviews, and articles alike that his politics are very salient in his fiction. I have never caught on).

He has never written a book I didn’t like. Sure, there are some I prefer to others, but generally, he can do no wrong, in my opinion. And this book is phenomenal; certainly one of my favourites.

Embassytown is more straight science fiction than his Bas-Lag universe. It is also written in first person; none of his other novels are written in entirely first person, although some of his sections and short stories are, and I thought he pulled it off very well. His protagonist is a woman, a human woman, named Avice. He writes her convincingly, as usual, and I believe she’s one of his most likeable protagonists yet. The setting is an unfamiliar time and land, in which Earth no longer exists or if it does, it is uninhabitable. Humans have long since been on various planets, but mostly Bremen — the planet on which Embassytown is a main city. They share Embassytown with a group of aliens the natives refer to as “Hosts” (in the polite sense, rather than the parasitic sense). It’s a complex book and story, going back and forth from early memories of Avice’s childhood to when she met her husband, another important character in the book (although not for the reasons that one might expect), to when the first issues with the Hosts began, to the present, when the world as they know it is coming to an unfortunate, untimely end. It’s a bleak book, in ways, but a brilliant one. And the most incredible part about it is the way Miéville characterizes the Hosts. Their language is incredible; how he thought it up, I will never understand. And that’s the other amazing part of the book that the writer in me appreciates so intensely: the crux of Embassytown, the very heart of the plot and the themes, is language: communication, truth versus lies, grammar and syntax, the way language does and does not represent the real and the factual and the possible. As someone who cares greatly about language, this was unthinkably wonderful.

Although there were a few misleading plot threads, I was extremely happy with the way the book went along. It is easier to get through than his Bas-Lag books, which require a lot of concentration to simply understand all the various plot points that must meld together, but beautifully complex and woven with incredible skill nonetheless. I would, without a doubt, list it was one of my favourite books of his, and highly recommend it to anyone looking to read his work, or a good work of science fiction.


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