I recently worked my way through Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. This is definitely one of the stranger books I’ve read of late.
Perdido Street Station is the massive train station at the center of the city of New Crobuzon. The book is set in this city, which is a part of a fantasy version of Victorian England. The world has steam punk and fantasy elements, but the scale of its weirdness is astounding.
To give you a taste, the story starts with the main character Isaac – a human male – engaged in sexual intercourse with Lin, a Khepri female. The khepri have human bodies, but insect heads, and wings.
The world is further populated by eagle-people, cactus people, frog-people, not to mention extraplanar spiders, and demons. Each of these races have their own history and their own communities in the dystopic city of New Crobuzon.
I say ‘dystopic’ because New Crobuzon is not a nice city. It’s a filthy gathering of mostly unhappy people suffering beneath a tyranny of its corrupt authoritarian leaders.
At first I couldn’t really discern a story. The book seemed to follow the daily business of several characters, each doing very unrelated distinct things. As the story progresses, a plot develops, but tangents about certain weird aspects of the world are not uncommon.
In other words, the world takes the center stage in the book, not the story. I’ve found that I take issue with that these days. I used to have no problem reading through thick tomes with long explanations of the epic fantasy worlds their stories took place in. No longer. Maybe it’s the times, maybe it’s me, but I’m bored with this epic world-building.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a well-thought-out fantasy or scifi setting. However, the world should carry an interesting story, with interesting characters, the characters shouldn’t be moving cameras to explore the world.
Part of my problem with the story might be my dislike of the characters. The main character, Isaac, is a scientist trying to research a mysterious power source which he dubbed crisis energy. His partner Lin is a Khepri artist who gets roped into making a statue of an underworld leader – on a side note, Khepri make statues with their own congealed spit.
I couldn’t sympathize with either of them. When Isaac’s quest leads to a series of unfortunate effects that threaten to destroy everything in the city, I was mostly ready to face-palm myself and drop the book altogether.
The rest of the characters are mostly miserable, or cruel, or unlikable in general. I couldn’t relate to them, making this story not work for me.
I wanted to like Perdido Street Station. It’s not a bad book, and I couldn’t find any large mistakes in it. The world is pretty awesome, and I can appreciate the hard work and imagination behind it, but it couldn’t thrill me.
So, if you like a Victorian-style fantasy focused on world-building, then this is definitely the book for you. If you’re more in less wordy, character-based stories, then you might be bored, like me.