Book Review: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station

February 27, 2001

The Amazon summary for this book reads:

The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the center of the world. Humans and mutants and arcane races brood in the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the river is sluggish with unnatural effluent and foundries pound into the night. For a thousand years, the Parliament and its brutal militias have ruled over a vast economy of workers and artists, spies and soldiers, magicians, crooks, and junkies.

Now a stranger has arrived, with a pocketful of gold and an impossible demand. And something unthinkable is released.

The city is gripped by an alien terror. The fate of millions lies with a clutch of renegades. A reckoning is due at the city’s heart, in the vast edifice of brick and wood and steel under the vaults of Perdido Street Station.

It is too late to escape.

This summary on Amazon is wrong and should mostly be ignored. While the first paragraph is accurate, the rest really isn’t. Next, it isn’t “cyberpunk” like so many people try to call it. It is steampunk in my opinion, definitely a strong fantasy element, but not cyberpunk at all. Coming in at 710 pages it is a healthy read; one full of vibrant characters in a city that you feel you know at some point. The author, China Miéville, is good at describing people, places, and events. He frequently accomplishes this by almost over-describing something, using a series of adjectives and topping it off with a metaphor or two. At times it can be a little overbearing, getting the point across in too many words, but for the most part it works.

The book is really two stories that collide. The first is the tale of an outcast Garuda (a bird-like race) seeking the help from the book’s primary anti-hero, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, to regain his ability to fly. During his research, Grimnebulin obtains every flying creature he can while studying the problem in order to find a solution. One of these creatures is a larva that eventually becomes something much, much different than what he thought he was getting.

That creature is one of five in the city that become a dream stealing nightmare, literally, that seemingly cannot be killed. An unlikely group along with support from unexpected and surprising allies makes for an interesting climax. I will say that the author has no problem going against the grain, ending bits in a way that many would consider unsatisfactory, so don’t make assumptions about what gets wrapped up neatly and what doesn’t.

The good: The city, the people, the races, and society are clearly well mapped out in the author’s mind, and his ability to describe them makes it easy to imagine yourself there. Parts that aren’t needed to tell the story but are included add color and make the world deeper and more full of life. The different races, the introduction of science meets magic meets technology, and bits of the supernatural work together to give a world we can relate to, but different enough from our own to be enjoyable.

The bad: Everything in this book is fairly dark, from the people to the plot as well as the city itself; dirty, grimy, and muddy. Unfortunately, there are two parts that get really dark, delving into topics that warrant trigger warnings. In the first case (p342) a few sentences could have been removed without compromising the detestable nature of a location and it would not have impacted the scene or story at all. In the second case (p691-end), parts of that could have been left out while still letting our imaginations fill in, each of us despising someone for our own guesses rather than spelling it out. Finally, a bit pedantic, but the author comes across as an academic and uses some words I had to look up to be honest. Having to stop to try to figure out what a word means or look it up is disruptive to the story. That makes the author somewhat oleaginously to me.

Hell, even WordPress doesn’t think that five-cent word in the last sentence is really a word.

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