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Hot Off the Press: Review of Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown by China MiévilleWhere I got it and why: From the library, as soon as I heard it was out. I love China Miéville.

Recommended? Absolutely. I didn’t like it as much as I liked Kraken – I adored Kraken – but like any good Miéville book, this positively blows the top off your head.

Summary: Avice Brenner Cho grew up in Embassytown, a small settlement tucked in the corner of a large alien city, out on the edge of known space. The aliens – the Hosts – can speak no lies, and know no symbolic language: everything they say must be true. When she was a girl, she was made into a simile, so that the Hosts could talk about things that are like the girl who was hurt in the darkness and ate what was given to her. Then she became an immerser, a sailor of that vast unknown that allows travel between distant worlds. When she married a linguist, she went back home to Embassytown.

Now that she’s an immerser, she’s a person of some little importance. She makes friends with the Ambassadors, the only people who can speak with the Hosts. But when their colony’s home world sends out a new kind of Ambassador…well, they had no idea how badly it could go.

Review: Well, China Miéville’s done it again, yet another ridiculously original, mindbending book about the possibilities inherent in the things we use every day. This time it’s language: words and similes and metaphors, communication and understanding. And, ultimately, fiction, that miraculous act of telling truth with lies.

Embassytown reminded me much more of the Bas-Lag books than the newer this-world Kraken or The City & The City. Perhaps it’s just that it’s set on an alien world, with fantastical alien creatures, but I think it’s also that Embassytown is a little more allegorical than Miéville has been lately. This is not a criticism, by the way; it’s definitely not one of those annoying allegories that makes you roll your eyes and wonder what the point of all that was. No, this is more subtle, with lots of twisty turns and plenty of opportunities for alternative interpretations. But it’s hard not to start drawing parallels when you’ve got a story about a war started by political maneuvering by people who clearly had no idea at all about the situation on the ground.

There’s a time jump in the middle of the book that really threw me off, a section that skims over some fairly important events, but aside from that the pacing is excellent, with a nice long introduction to get you accustomed to the world and its people before it starts throwing things at your head. I found that the balance of exposition was just right – the narrative will go along cheerfully without you, letting you scramble to keep up with new characters and ideas, and just when you start to feel overloaded, there’s a chapter’s worth of explanation. This makes the first few chapters kind of tough going, but hold on, it will all make sense soon.

By the end of the book, I was reminded of a comment Jo Walton made on her reviews of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, that they were like Tolkein in that very few people will create a fantasy universe only to destroy the unique magic in it. Embassytown does something of the same thing, although in a very different way, and with very little patience for the melancholy that goes along with the way Tolkein does such things. The world changes in Embassytown, permanently and certainly, and no one really knows whether or not that’s a good thing. It is simply a thing that is.

Embassytown by China Miéville was published on May 17, 2011 by Del Ray. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.

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Kraken, A Wild Light, The Medical Detectives, St Peter’s Fair

China Miéville, Kraken
Oh China Miéville, I forgive you for Iron Council. This book is marvellous, the best kind of thriller — the kind where you start out with no idea what’s just happened, three quarters of the way through the book you realize that everything you’ve learned so far still gives you no idea what’s happened, and in the last quarter you get an explanation that is nothing like what you expected but makes perfect sense. It’s gloriously masterful writing, and that’s even without introducing the wonderful scenery of Kraken’s mystical London. Every bit of it is spectacular, from the Londonmancers to the familiars’ strike to the horror of the Tattoo and his minions. And the characters, everyone with a startling amount of depth and sincerity, even the people who start out seeming to be nothing more than scenery. I loved it, and I wanted to read it again as soon as I was finished. Alas, library New Book loan times…

Marjorie M. Liu, A Wild Light
Third in her Hunter Kiss series, an urban fantasy series by a paranormal romance writer. I’ve never read any of her romance novels, but I’m tempted to, because one of my favorite parts of the series is Maxine’s relationship with Grant, her long-term boyfriend. They’re together when the series starts, and their mutual support and understanding is wonderful. None of this “I have to lie to you to protect you” crap with them. Their relationship is a focus in this book, for the first time, when Maxine loses her memory of the past few years along with her memories of what happened the night her grandfather was killed. (Well, the body that her grandfather was living in was killed, actually. Her grandfather is…complicated.) And then it starts to get epic. I swear, every time I read one of these books I think, It can’t possibly get any more epic than this, and then in the next book, it does. I’m loving it.

Berton Rouché, The Medical Detectives
This is the book the TV show House is based on. You can tell, because almost every single story in this book is an episode from one of the first couple of seasons. (It’s possible some of the other stories were made into episodes later; I stopped watching partway through season three.) These are, of course, real-life stories of epidemiologists — specialists whose job it is to determine how an outbreak of a dangerous disease or medical situation occurred, so as to prevent it happening again. The story about the pesticides on the jeans (also an episode of House) has made me paranoid about new clothing for quite a while. The book is excellently written; at times Rouché constructs a narrative almost devoid of direct quotations that nevertheless allows the perspectives of the individuals involved to shine through, but when he’s got a patient or doctor who’s a good storyteller, he’ll just quote them directly, sometimes for pages at a time. I admire a nonfiction writer who knows when to get out of the way of the people they’re interviewing.

Ellis Peters, St. Peter’s Fair
Still more Cadfael — possibly the last for a while, as I’ve gone on a noir kick and Cadfael is not really compatible with Phillip Marlowe. My favorite part of these books, I think, is the strength of the characters. Like any mystery series, there’s a strong focus on the one-off characters in each story, but they’re always interesting, powerful, and strong in their own way. I particularly like Peters’ ability to write strong female characters who nevertheless fit perfectly into their role in a society that offered them fairly limited options. Strength of character isn’t in opportunities, it’s what you do with them, and the young women in these books are always holding themselves up high.

Wolf-Speaker, Phonogram, Women Who Kill, The City & The City

I am on a book-finishing roll.

Tamora Pierce, Wolf-Speaker
Second in the previously-gushed-about Immortals series. I admit I don’t like this one as much as the first; where Wild Magic features tons of characters from the Alanna Quartet, plus some new ones as well, this one is almost all just Daine, the wolf pack, a girl from the Dunlath fort, and the basilisk Tkaa. I don’t know if it’s because they’re all new characters, or if it’s because they’re so isolated, both physically and in their concerns, but Wild Magic (and the sequel, Emperor Mage) feel much richer than this book. Not that I don’t love it, mind. It’s just the least-awesome of the four.

Phonogram Vol. 1, Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie
A graphic novel about…well, lots of things. On the face of it, about a phonomancer — a magician who uses magic as his medium — attempting to save himself and the memory of BritPop from retromancers — magicians disguised as DJs who play nothing but old music in an attempt to make people feel nostalgia, which they feed off of. You can kind of see the other things they’re playing with from that; music and pop culture, of course, the difference between nostalgia and memory, what it means to be shaped by your past. I liked it, even though the main character was a wanker. (He knew he was a wanker, but that didn’t stop him, which is exactly the kind of person I hate the most.) I’ll read the other books in the series if he’s not the main character any more.

Ann Jones, Women Who Kill
The classic work on women murderers throughout history. Originally published in 1988 and reissued in 1996, this is a very classically feminist work, focusing on the way women who were subject to a law more interested in keeping them out of the way than addressing the wrongs done to them might turn to murder just to get any damn thing done. Jones explicitly says that she’s talking only about cases that excited the public imagination; she’s not talking about murder as much as she’s talking about women in history, with murder as the catalyst. I started reading a dissertation on female serial killers once that made no sense to me as part of the serial killer literature, but now makes a little more sense as a kind of sequel to this work. (Maybe I’ll dig that dissertation out again and finish it, actually…)

China Miéville, The City & The City
As usual from him, a book you can’t even begin to talk about sensibly unless the other person has also read it. Reviewing without spoilers is complicated. Basically: this book takes place in two cities that occupy the same space, Besźel and Ul Qoma. (Do you know how long I had to hunt for that accented z? I finally gave up and pasted it from Wikipedia.) That is, citizens of Besźel live in their streets, some of which are all Besźel and some of which are part Besźel and part Ul Qoma, and they go about their days and if they encounter any citizens of Ul Qoma (as they are bound to do), they unsee them. Act as if they aren’t there. Same with buildings, cars, smells, sounds…everything. (Obviously tourism is somewhat complicated.) One day a murdered woman turns up in a Besźel slum, and it seems that she was killed in Ul Qoma and dumped in Besźel, which is a breach, which is handled by Breach, a shadowy, mysterious, and entirely creepy organization that stringently enforces the boundaries between the two cities. But Breach won’t take the case (since, it turns out, there was no breach involved), and the poor inspector who started working on the case is stuck with something much, much more complicated. It’s an amazing book (featuring two of the most incredible chase scenes ever), and the effort it takes to get started is entirely worth it in the end.

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