Perdido street station, by China Miéville (2000)
The setting for Perdido Street Station is a very neat crossover of steampunk and magitek. Think Magic: The Gathering’s Ravnica, only filthier and nastier, think Ankh-Morpork, or 19th-century London, only darker and edgier. No, more darker and more edgier. You’re still not close.
While H.P. Lovecraft, visible head of the classic Weird movement, writes things like ‘the monster was so hideous and terrifying that it was indescribable’ and never bothers to actually describe it, Miéville, part of the New Weird movement, goes on and describes every single gruesome detail excruciatingly. The monster is in his head, he can see it, and be sure you’re going to see it too. And a big part of achieving that is this man’s beyond belief vocabulary. It’s rich as hot chocolate and graphic as a dirty joke— I’ve never been so thankful of reading on a tablet with an in-built dictionary. There are words you find here and there, like ‘bathetic’, ‘fastidious’ and ‘querulously’ whose definitions are so spot-on there is no fucking way they came out of a thesaurus. You can see it, touch it and smell it, New Crobuzon in all its disgusting glory.
The storytelling doesn’t fall behind, either. It’s clever, well constructed and full of twists and meanders. I finished it just a few minutes ago and I haven’t felt so brought down and the same time so satisfied by a book since I finished A storm of swords. That feeling of the author refusing to give everyone their happy ending as a way to tie up the story the easy way, going instead for the more uncomfortable and difficult to execute well, reminds me of reading R.R. Martin’s A song of ice and fire, or at least what it was like until he decided reviving everyone just because was a satisfying plot device.
It’s hard to say anything else without spoiling it for everyone, since this is one of those books that you enjoy the more the less you know about them. So if what you have read so far has appealed to you, go read this immediately. It’s a very… plastic experience.
And now for ***SPOILERS***
In Spanish there is a saying for stories where nearly everybody dies, for dramatic effect, and it’s ‘even the prompter dies’. Pretty much applies. New Crobuzon is fascinating, but don’t fool yourself, it’s a cruel place and most who live there stay there because they have nowhere to go, and those who willingly stay do so because they make a living out of making the first group miserable.
So at the beginning of the book the setting is so dark and depressing but you’re there thinking that at least Yagharek will get to fly again and when the moths from hell get loose you see that he had a better chance at getting his wings by persuading James Stewart not to jump from a bridge. And it goes downhill from there. Let’s get out our checklist: dozens of people die absurd deaths either being drunk by the moths or in the cross-fire about the moths. The slake-moths themselves. The scene where he describes the moth’s tongue getting in that woman’s mouth and brain and budging behind her eyes made me feel physically sick to my stomach. I actually had to put down the book and go for some fresh air.
Andrej. I felt so sorry for the poor guy even though he was dying from the first scene he’s in and kept thinking to myself: ‘well… maybe he gets superpowers out of this and we can laugh and wave off his abduction and torture…’ But no. And Miéville makes sure to give him a name and describe his terror and agony every chance he has.
Then Lin. Everyone thought, reasonably, that she could only be dead. When you’ve forgotten about her she pops out of a corner, completely oblivious of the brainsucker moths and just goes: ‘what do you mean, don’t look back? What’s behind me? Oh, fuck’. Poor Yahgarek tries to fix it only to leave her handicapped, making Isaac ask himself if he wishes she would be dead instead.
And then, when you think the book couldn’t break your heart any more, there’s the revelation about Yagharek’s crime. Miéville’s got a bit for everyone and nobody goes home empty-handed. The one who has it better might be Derkhan, who only lost an ear. I tip my hat to you, stand up and clap, Mr. Miéville.