Review: Perdido Street Station

by Tom Ingram

Kraken was a fun (if overlong) book, and it showed off China Mieville’s considerable stylistic talent, imagination, and eclectic sensibility. It’s a standalone that has pretty much nothing to do with anything he’s written before, but even in a throwaway silly novel Mieville writes with such a fresh voice that he demands further exploration. For my first foray into his “real” novels, I picked Perdido Street Station, the first of a trilogy and the winner of the Clarke Award.

In the first two hundred pages, Mieville moves all his pieces into place—here’s Isaac, an avant-garde scientist, and his semi-secret girlfriend Lin, a khepri artist. The khepri are a race whose females have a human body but a large beetle instead of a head (the males are just the beetle, and it’s socially acceptable to squish them). The two of them live and work in New Crobuzon, a sci-fantasy steampunk city-state populated by dozens of different races, humanoid and otherwise, and governed by an oppressive dictatorship. People hate the government in a genial sort of way, but mostly they just go about their business. The number of actual rebels is so small that the police bother with them only to make examples.

Here we run into the first problem. While Mieville’s world is drawn in incredible detail, nothing happens in the first third of the book. Sure, the main plot is set up, but it could have been done equally well in a fraction of the space. Since this is such a huge chunk of the book, it throws everything out of balance, pulling a bait-and-switch with the main plot almost halfway through and causing the underwhelming ending to be crammed into a handful of pages.

The characters are thin, except for the villain (usual for Mieville). One character is set up with a mysterious past that turns out to have no relevance to the rest of the story. Each section is framed with his italicized narration, which makes him especially baffling—I keep expecting a sudden revelation that explains his role in the story, and I finished the book weeks ago. Another character is set up as extremely important and then gets kidnapped and is not mentioned again till the end. Rape is used (unnecessarily) in two instances, and badly handled both times.

The length of the book (600 pages) is out of proportion to the depth of character development and urgency of the main conflict. When you put all this together, it seems like Mieville changed his mind about what kind of novel he wanted to write when he was about 200 pages in, and he didn’t go back and excise all the holdovers that no longer made sense.

That’s the bad stuff. That’s the reason why I didn’t file this book under “Delightful”, as I though I would shortly after I started reading. The first half will hook you and make you into a believer, but the second is just disappointing. Still, Perdido Street Station is a very good novel that demonstrates why Mieville is probably the only creative fantasy author working today.

The world of Perdido Street Station is richly drawn with colourful locales, weird creatures, and fascinating concepts. I’d love to see it as a movie one day, because Mieville’s visions simply need to be visualized. (Though I couldn’t actually watch such a movie because SPIDERS. Oh yes, there are spiders. You have been warned.) The scene that really stuck with me was the lovingly-depicted dock strike and the brutal way it was put down.

That was tangential to the main plot, but it was so powerful both as a large-scale action scene and a political soapbox (Mieville is some flavour of socialist—his politics are evident in his books, but not belaboured). If the most interesting thing in Perdido Street Station is the scenery, at least it’s really interesting scenery.