These overdue book reviews are getting out of hand. I had no idea that I was so far behind. Time to start doubling-up.
After reading the amazing The City and The City by China Miéville (my review), I decided that I needed to start digging into the author’s other novels. Over the summer I tackled the Miéville’s latest, Embassytown, and another recent novel, Kraken.
Embassytown begins with alternating chapters from “before” and “after”. Before and after what, exactly, are a mystery. The reader is left purposely adrift for almost 100 pages, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s almost as though the author were purposely trying to eliminate the easily distracted readers before getting to the meat of the story. Once the stories merge, it becomes a fascinating sci-fi novel of big ideas.
The embassy town of the title is located on a remote planet on the edge of the explored universe. The planet is inhabited by strange creatures who are useful in that they are able to “biomanufacture” products. The products are grown on farms and then shipped via living intestinal-type pipes into the human city, the embassy town, where they are prepared for shipment to waiting consumers. If that’s not the perfect metaphor for the manufacture/consumer relationship, I don’t know what is. However interesting this process is, it’s not the central idea behind Embassytown.
The creatures living on this planet have two mouths that they use for speech. Their speech is represented in the novel by the part spoken by one mouth written as though it were the numerator and the part spoken by the second mouth as the denominator. If it seems that speaking from two mouths would be a recipe for duplicity, that’s not the case here – at first. The beings on this planet cannot conceive of that which is not – or lies. The introduction of lies, which has a narcotic effect on the locals, leads to a planet of language junkies and a colonist population in danger of total destruction.
Any attempt to summarize the novel, like this one, almost necessarily does a disservice to the novel. Embassytown is a sprawling epic on the ideas of languages, how they work, their meaning, and their importance to life itself. I enjoyed the novel and was ready for more Miéville, but I recognize that Embassytown is clearly not everyone’s thing.
Kraken is an entirely different novel. This novel is set in a what is more or less modern-day London. It begins with Billy Harrow noting the abrupt departure of a man with a doomsday sandwich board from his regular spot outside the London Natural History Museum. Foreshadowing. Billy is a curator of exhibits at the museum. His prize specimen – the museum’s prize specimen – a perfectly intact giant squid, beautifully preserved by Billy, has disappeared. The improbability of the enormous tank holding the squid just disappearing is baffling to all – but suggests an inside job.
The disappearance launches Billy into a world that is usually carefully hidden just beneath the surface of our world. It is a world of strange sects, paranormal investigation police units, dark forces, spirits, magic, and mayhem. The disappearance of the squid could possibly hint at the destruction of the world. A lot is riding on locating the squid, and everyone believes that Billy, preserver of the specimen, holds the answers. Yanked from his quiet life as a museum curator, Billy is unsure of who he should trust amidst competing offers of help and shifting alliances. A gripping page-turner, this was a perfect read for the beach.
Maybe these reviews are overdue because I am unable to write about either book without making them sound completely bizarre. Sure, they are that, but these are well written stories, too. I do not recommend either novel for the science fiction phobic. If you’re a genre reader, Miéville may be for you.