Top critical review
Really good and pretty bad
on 2 November 2017
For the positives, this is a novel boiling with ideas, and ideas of an interesting, intellectually challenging kind. At its themic heart lies the principle of binaries - or, more properly, the transgression of binaries: of the mechanical merging with the biological, mammals with insects, the respectable world with the degraded, and so on. There is an interest in the role of perception in MAKING sense, joining up points to make art, faces, logics, plots; and with the abject, with things that foster disgust, and usually lie 'underneath', constantly drawn to the fore. This is terrific stuff, if not unfamiliar. I suspect the author studied some critical theory sometime in the 'nineties.
On the negative side, all this is explored completely and at length before you are halfway through the novel, and as for the rest... The main story does not begin till about 400 pages in (yes, 400 pages). When it does begin, it has little or nothing to do with the good stuff noted above, and is, honestly, not that interesting. The rest of the book is description, pages and pages of it, all in prose that I suspect is meant to be literary but is horribly over-ripe and heart-stoppingly repetitive. It is mostly the city that is described - or rather, its dirt, sewers, corruption, degradation... you get the picture. By 100 pages in I wanted to tell the author: yes, I get it, you can stop now, but it carries on for the entirety of this rather long novel.
I suspect that this is partly a question of sensibility. If you really like description - and like gothic, and like steampunk - this probably works for you. I don't and just found it infuriating. Certainly the author has imagination - but really, who doesn't? Your world-building has to be really good, and has to DO a lot, if you are going to do it at such length.
I am giving the novel 3 stars because it is pleasingly intellectually ambitious (and, really, intellectually successful) and that is so rare, even among novels deemed to be 'literary'. I couldn't say that I enjoyed most of it, though. I'm glad I read it, and I fought my way to the end, but it was often a fight.