Like The Radleys, another book pretending to be something else. And trying harder. And succeeding better. But under the pretence at being a crime novel, I’m not really sure what this actually /is/. So far as I can tell, it’s not really fantasy. And it’s not really science fiction. It’s just… odd.
A lot of people have recommended China Miéville to me. This is the second book of his I’ve read, and the first I’ve finished (Un Lun Dun was a kids’ book, and not, I felt at the time, a very good one at that) and I’m not sure it has encouraged me to read more. I am struggling very hard to see why so many people thought he was worth sharing.
On the face of it, I can’t find anything really to complain about. There’s nothing, strictly speaking, wrong with the book. I spent the first fifty pages quite confused, but that was in a good way. The whole things starts as a detective mystery style of book, but since it was in the fantasy section, I kept expecting it to turn into fantasy after a while. I mean, it was obviously only pretending to be a detective novel, while it was busy luring you into what it really was underneath. And it hints, it hints so much and seems and suggests that what it is is something more than mundane. But when it comes down to it, at the end of the book (ok, this is probably spoilers, read not further if you care) all that hinting and suggesting and are nothing more than a red herring, and it’s a detective novel, all the way to the end.
True, it’s not an entirely run of the mill detective novel (I think… I don’t really read crime fiction after Holmes, so I can’t say for sure) but the weirdness around the edges never really resolves into solid fantasy. It is a cool setting, undeniably so. Miéville had an excellent idea when he made up Ul Qoma and Besźel. I just wish he’d… I don’t know… maybe let it be as weird and potentially magical as the book keeps letting you hope it is.
My own disappointment out of the way, the book is good. I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea good, but it has obvious, visible merits. The plot goes at a nice, amazingly well-balanced pace. There are no points, even when they are doing police-y drudge, where I feel like the story’s dragging. And it’s a well-thought out, well-executed plot. As I said, I was confused for the first fifty pages, and that doesn’t entirely get dispelled until very near the end of the novel. There’s no real question of predictability of the plot. It takes long enough to get to grips with the setting and all the players (and the pseudo-Balticky-Hungariany-Arabicky names and place-names) that you don’t really have a chance of predicting anything until you already know for sure. And, as I said before, the setting is brilliant. Not just the idea, which is pretty damn cool, but the execution. He drops in little bits here and there of backstory, without going into full-on exposition mode too much, to make it seem really real.
Character-wise, it’s a bit more tricky. You don’t get anything like the depth I would really like, but I think it’s just part and parcel of the author’s style. It wouldn’t fit in with the way he writes background and plot to have really explored the point of view character. And I don’t think the character could have withstood it. Borlú works as a detective, and works as a man without much going on under the surface, but I don’t think he could have carried complex motivations, or even really emotions other than “determined”, “confused” and “swearing”. He does the last one a lot. In any other book, I suppose he’d feel shallow and pointless, but he works against the richness and madness of the setting; they complement each other. You almost don’t need another set of complicated to try to work out, when the whole background is plenty mad enough. Also, the main character is from Besźel, which comes across pretty quickly as dead and grey and washed out, without any real depth to it, and so he is kind of of-his-city. Think caricature of Eastern European city, in the not-good way, and you’re probably about there. But I like characters. I like people I can completely love, and care what happens to, and really really want to read more about, and they just aren’t there. You get vague hints at motivations, but no real glimpse of what’s going on underneath, and it’s quite disconcerting, really.
Basically, I have quite mixed feelings on the book. On the one hand, I feel like it could have been so much, and it did promise so much, but it didn’t ever give it up, and actually was leading you on all along. But on the other hand, the whole point is that deception, and it is carried off very well, in a wonderful setting that is really worth reading about.
I won’t read the book again, I should imagine. I am not encouraged to read any more of his books. But nor can I bring myself to say that the book is bad, or not worth reading. I’ll settle for “it’s not really my thing” and leave it at that. For the right person, I think it would be a good read, even a great one. But I don’t think I know the right person, maybe I’m wrong, so I shan’t be recommending it either.