This review initially reveals some ideas contained in the book, but no plot points other than the initial set-up. However, after another warning, it will reveal some plot points.
This book is certainly longer than I'd expected when I ordered it - it's built like a house brick! - but I soldiered on.It is a story of an ex-univeristy science lecturer, Isaac, who has some frowned upon ideas, largely relating to a theory of self-perpetuating energy called Crisis Theory. He is approached by Yagharek, from a humanoid-birdrace called the Garuda (in a nod to Hindu mythology) to find a way to let him fly again, after his wings have been amputated for reasons undislosed.
At the same time, Isacc's lover, Lin, is of the Khepri race (in a nod to ancient-Egyptian mythology that Mieville doubtless picked up when he lived in Egypt) who has a beetle for a head is approached by a mob boss to make some art for him in the way the Khepri do, by chewing up substances and excreting it through a gland on the back of their scarab head.
When I read the section describing Lin, I was sure I'd mis-imagined it somehow because that idea just seemed to ridiculous. But on re-reading it, and descriptions that followed she does indeed have a scarab for a head. The book does this a few times - introduces ideas that seem absurd, and to recommend the book to others while mentioning these ideas, seem laughable. But somehow, they hang together off each other well and just gel so that while individual ideas may seem to jump the shark, the created world is grounded in itself.
First off, I noticed the richness of the language. Mieville has been accused of writing with a thesaurus open beside him, of being smugly wordy, needlessly verbose. I didn't feel that he was. Yes - he uses a lot of big words, many unfamiliar to me, but I never felt that he was bludgeoning me with them. Simply revelling in his command of English. And it challenged me to expand mine. While that was occasionally frustrating as I had to READ the book with a dictionary beside me, I like learning.
That language is used to great effect in describing a city that felt, to me, very Dickensian. It's a grubby world that focuses on the everymen. A city that does have its gilded towers and sparkling streets, but where this story focuses is the junkies, the outcasts, the hidden revolutionaries, the outcasts, the slums, the squalid, sexual deviants, the people clinging onto the breadline, the mob bosses and the channels of their power, the mercenaries, stoolies, and fences. And the language used in describing this is rich, and imagery-laden, and very sensual. Often borderline sexual in describing it's squalour.
There are corrupt politicians, morally ambiguous scientists and a brutal and paranoid militia. The city feels quite Dickensian with a spot of steampunk in the form of steam and cog driven computing engines that receive instruction on punched cards interacting with cogs in their input slots, governmental airships, message tubes around the council buildings. It's steampunk influenced, but without all the Victoriana surrounding it. Add to that, very small amounts of magic - think less wizards and elves, and more a branch of physics that happily exists in this world and is never really bombastic and you have an idea.
Many different races co-exist in the city of New Croubzon, all physically and societally clearly delineated. The city has its ghettos and slums, where xenophobia is rife, and it's more affluent areas where integration, while not complete, is more realised. The wider world, while sketched, is largely irrelevant to this story, but is pencilled in clearly enough that this city doesn't seem to exist in a vacuum.
An idea that really appealed to me was The Remade. It is a literal remaking of the body using a little science, a little technology, and a little magic and used on the desperate: Poor rickshaw drivers paying for extra legs so that they may be a more efficient cabbie, mercenaries paying to be weaponised for more efficient killing, prostitutes paying for extra... you get the idea. Or they are the punished disfigured - for example,murderers having body parts of their victims grafted on to their faces reflecting the nature of their crimes.The characters feel well rounded and many issues are touched up on. The story and characters seem to have some very dark threads running through them. And though quite obviously so, they somehow seem more subdued.
Rape, disfigurement, self harm, sexual deviancy, drug addiction, isolation, loss of self, addiction, experimentation, transformation all written in language that teeters on erotic fascination.
I suspect the author has had his demons to wrestle.Yet none of these issues is THE issue. They rather form a backdrop to the story.
FOLLOWING MAY BE MORE PLOT SPOILERS THAN YOU WANT IF YOU PLAN ON READING THE BOOK!
The book, after spending nearly half its length setting in motion the various threads of the story, then changes rather abruptly to a monster hunt after one of the grubs Isaac is studying regarding flight mutates into a giant moth that sucks minds dry, and frees it's siblings that are being experimented on in a government facility. I'll be honest I didn't like the shift at first.
It interrupted the delicate relationship Isaac and Yagharek had, and his discoveries on crisis theory.
It interrupted the delicate and dangerous relationship Lin had with Motley, the gang boss.
And it interrupted the tender yet unlikely relationship between Lin and Isaac.
And you never really got to revisit them again. They were all rent by the moths. I felt a little let down that after setting up some nice and delicate ideas and relationships, the book shifted to being something a bit more blunt and simple.
But once I'd accepted it, I really liked the story that followed. And it does come with a couple of moral dilemmas that really made me, as a reader, question where my morality and judgement sat on the issues.
It's exciting, tense, and while quite a straightforward hunt by a group of wanted vagabonds, it has room for invention and some really quite extreme ideas at times. But again without jumping its own shark.
The story is brutal at times and don't expect all the characters to walk away unscathed (both physically and your parting impressions of them). This left a bitter taste in my mouth at times but that's just something I have to swallow. These are plausible and initially I thought sometimes they seemed unnecessary and manipulative, but reflecting, I think that's just my distaste for loss.
In summary, I'd say it's a book of two halves, both of which have some great ideas! The first is a slower, more ideas and concept driven half, and the second is a much more action driven half, reiterating and incorporating the themes established in the first half.It does have some outlandish concepts such as cactus-people, and I'm sure they'll turn some people off. but if you accept them in the context of the book, they are largely incidental and add a far-away exoticness to a story permeated with a claustrophobic fear of loss of self.
While it straddles sci-fi and fantasy, it's not a high version of either of these and is a fairly simple story that simply has fantastical elements.