I'd been looking forward to this for a while. It is at first sight something of a departure from Miéville's last two books, in being, perhaps more overtly "science fictiony" that them (which will maybe please some of those who didn't like The City & the City
Set on a human colony, on an alien planet, right at the end of everywhere, it is narrated by Avice, a cool-headed space sailor who has returned to show her new husband her very odd home world. The aliens whose world Avice was born on are very.. alien, something Miéville conveys well by not describing them. It's not just their physiology that is strange, or their technology of "biorigging", making buildings, machines, everything from live flesh. The oddest thing is their language - or as it is rendered, Language. It would be a shame, and spoil some of the careful revelation that Mieville uses to draw his reader in, to say much about how it is produced or what humans need to do to speak it, but one feature he makes clear from the start is that the natives of this planet - the Host - cannot lie. Their Language does not allow it. So when a cult of would-be liars springs up, it is a matter of concern, and the repercussions of this seem to be shaping up to the climax of the book - until Miéville deftly twists his plot and everything changes. The crisis we thought was coming is suddenly unimportant, and a much worse threat arises.
This is a compelling book, stuffed with vivid language, meaty concepts (the idea of "immer", a space-beyond-space, underlying the Universe and allowing navigation; the Hosts' technology; the colonial politics of Embassytown and its distant masters in Bremen; the strange society of the Ambassadors, those who can speak to the Hosts; the Hosts themselves; characters who are living similes - the Hosts cannot lie, their language can only refer to what is true, what has happened, so if they need a new figure of speech it has to be acted out, made concrete; the mysterious Lighthouses - enough in this new universe for a string of books). But the central concern is the nature and magic of language, of truth, of lies.
Avice herself can seem a rather distant, cold narrator. Only towards the end of the book does she drive the plot to any degree. In large part, this mirrors the split between the unknowable Hosts and the humans, or that between the human "commoners" and the privileged Ambassadors and their Staff. Avice is an outsider, looking in - as of course are we. This is, I think, is where the book shows some similarities with its immediate predecessors - I found echoes especially of The City & the City
here (while Kraken
has perhaps some analogues in the sheer exuberance of the Host and their world and there are even parallels with Un Lun Dun
, both the way things fall apart and in the malignity of bureaucrats and rulers.
This is a beautiful book, not an easy read but easy to read, thought provoking, lavish in what it gives the reader, a great gift from China Miéville to his readers. I think it's the best thing I've read so far this year.