Book Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

200px-Mieville_Embassytown_2011_UK

‘Embassytown’ is the first of China Mieville’s books that I’ve read, but based on this sample, I’d certainly be interested in trying some more of his work.
That said, at first I was far from convinced. It starts off with a lot of apparently made-up words and concepts without explanation, which is one of my pet peeves of sci-fi. Call me dull, but I don’t find this kind of thing intriguing. I’m torn instead between irritation that I don’t understand what the author is talking about, and a sneaking suspicion that they are doing it to seem clever.

Courtesy of xchd.com

Courtesy of xchd.com

However, in this case, once you plough on through the first few chapters, it is hard to see how Mieville could have written this story without the jargon, and remained true to the voice of his narrator, Avice. It is a slow seduction of a book. After a while, you realise that it is genuinely hard to put down, and that all the strange terms are second nature to you.
To give you some idea of the story, Avice comes from Embassytown – a place on the edge of the navigable universe. It’s a place very much locked within its own boundaries, both physical and political, as the human inhabitants are there only by the generosity of their very alien Hosts. Even the atmosphere is rigged up within the city to be breathable by humans, but it’s a tiny bubble of humanity in a very alien world. One oddity of the Hosts is that they speak with two voices simultaneously, and there must be a mind behind the words. Generations of Ambassadors – perfect human clones – have been bred to be able to speak to the Hosts with minds so close that they are effectively one soul. When a new Ambassador comes from their ruling planet and speaks Language, everything goes horribly wrong.
In fact, over and over again, just when things can’t seem to get any worse, they do. It does keep you on tenterhooks.
This is a highly political story, and also one which at its core has a fairly technical linguistic point. The story is not short of action, but it’s certainly not for dummies either. I think this would actually be a terrific book to study at school, although the act of studying it might kill the story, because there are so many aspects of society, empire, and political systems which could be studied, on top of the impressive world building and finesse of linguistics.

The scope of imagination which Mieville brings to this book is truly awe-inspiring, and I’d highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars

five-stars

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Embassytown by China Mieville

  1. wow a strong rating. There was a book Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon that I tried to read three times in my twenties, but by the end of the book, he was mixing German/English and I don’t know what so I could never follow it. So If they have made up words in a book, there better be a glossary

    • It would be great if there were a glossary! Or even just a plain and simple explanation of what they mean. In the end, you get it just like most other new words: by the context. I suppose there is a lesson in itself there about language.

      • if you ever take a shot at Pynchon — let me know how it goes. Supposedly it is one of the greatest works of American fiction, did get a Nebula nomination — and I never could get through it. ( sigh )

  2. Pingback: China Miéville – Un Lun Dun | Sci-Fi & Fantasy Book Reviews

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