I’m embarrassingly new to Bas Lag. I’m no stranger to Mieville’s works — Embassytown remains one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read — but there was something so offputtingly huge to me about the first Bas Lag outing, Perdido Street Station.
I haven’t really gone in for massive books (in this case, a solid 860 pages) for a long time. It’s not the length in and of itself that puts me off—though if there is one thing I have found, it’s that books of that length rarely need to be that length — it’s that I’m a slow reader. It took me six weeks to read this book. With limited reading time, and a finite number of books I can possibly hope to read in my lifetime, the opportunity cost of these longer books is often just too high a price to pay for me.
Anyway, with nothing on my radar and at a loose end in Bromley Waterstones, I decided to take punt on this. Well, it wasn’t really a punt, since I knew I loved Mieville’s writing; but I was running out of time, and I’m waiting on Claire North’s Notes from the Burning Age to hit paperback.
And this book was magnificent.
I really loved it. There’s no two ways about it.
How to describe it? It’s set in a place called New Crobuzon. New Crobuzon is as much character in the book as the actual characters. New Crobuzon is a mixture of something like:
Grimdark Ankh Morpork;
A steam/powder punk version of London;
The Dishonoured videogame universe.
Mieville absolutely luxuriates in the setting he has created. The book is completely shot through with geographical references (which often mean nothing to the reader), descriptions of streets and buildings and rivers, and little vignettes of backstory about suburbs and regions. The book is as much a Lonely Planet guide to New Crobuzon as it is a vehicle for its plot.
In fact, if I had one criticism of the book, it would be that; Mieville revels so much in the sandbox world he has created, stuffing it full of four five novels’ worth of ideas and plot threads, that the actual main storyline is somewhat buried amongst the sheer display of imagination. This was not problem, really, for me. I love little throwaway details; they are what give the story its verisimilitude. But I can definitely see how some readers would not enjoy it. The details are in overabundance, and the casualty of this is that a number of plot threads are built up only to be lost in the noise.
The plot itself centres around a group of misfits as they try and stop a menagerie of horrifying moth-like creatures as they feed on the conscious minds of the citizens of the city. These people are not heroes; they very much exist on a spectrum of ethical diversity. The story itself does not tie up particularly neatly, and the ending is decidedly bittersweet (with the needle tending toward bitter). There are many synopses available online, so I shall not add to the cosmic microwave background on that front.
Anyway, the reality is Mieville is one of those writers I am insanely jealous of. I will never match the man’s talent when it comes to prose. I die a little bit inside every time I read one of his books. I wish I had something approaching his wordsmithery. I don’t really do star ratings any more, but if I did this one would have all of them. I am so very pleased that there are more Bas Lag novels out there.
I wish Mieville was more prolific.
I shall have to ration them…