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May 16, 2011 / schulerbooks

Embassytown – by China Mieville

When Avice Benner Cho was a young girl, in Embassytown, she was given the opportunity to become a living part of a truly unique alien tongue. The process was unpleasant, but not too traumatizing, and afforded her a rare honor amongst her people: the right to say that she was a simile spoken in Language by the Ariekei, commonly called the Hosts.

Not that turning down the Hosts’ “opportunity” was even a choice, though. The relatively small, mostly-human colony of powerful (but far away) Bremen is surrounded by a toxic, biomechanical mélange of living buildings, intestinal factories, and motile forests, and kept oxygenated, biorigged, and alive only by those truly strange beings’ good graces. Freakish Ambassadors – “twins” made to think and speak as one in order to communicate in Language – keep the peace with diplomacy, but it’s always been a thin peace that could shatter with one wrong word.

Now older, well traveled, and married, though not necessarily happier, the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her has returned home. On the surface, little has changed, but there’s trouble brewing in the insular city. Intrigues are piling on intrigues, and intimations of trouble from Bremen are floating on the air more often. Worse still, Avice’s former ambassadorial lovers and her estranged husband seem to be conspiring on something, and no one – not even her closest A.I. friend. – will give her a straight answer as to what’s going on.

Then comes the “impossible” new Ambassador, straight from Bremen. This one has a unique gift: a fillip on the Ambassadorial ability that is going to change everything – the city’s relationship to the Hosts, their very society, and the functioning of the world they live in.

At a party that turns from a formal welcoming into a portent of doom, Avice is quite literally present for the end of life as she knows it. But is it the end of the world, or merely the end of an era? To survive in the days ahead, Avice must not only live up to her singular honor, but transcend the simile that Language has made of her.

More could be said about Embassytown, but doing so would ruin a lot of its carefully crafted, exotic surprises. It is enough to say that, after reading this surprisingly epic novel, you will never look at language, ambassadors, diplomacy, or colonization in the same way again. Indeed, one of Miéville’s many gifts is his ability to wrap his fingers around the face of something we take for granted, and then reshaping it into something startlingly unfamiliar, yet all too understandable.

This work heralds a return to form for Miéville, which is both good and bad. Good in that, after two fairly straightforward but still amazing novels (The City and The City and Kraken) I was thirsting after another deep immersion into otherworldly yet understandable cities, and the unfamiliar but enticing language he uses to describe them and tell their stories. Such a jaunt with China Miéville is a lot like having H.P. Lovecraft and Mervyn Peake take you on a color tour of some exotic and dangerous corner of the world – a trip that can promise no safety, but all the wonder you can handle and then some.

But that tour can prove frustrating at times, and, alas, Embassytown is no exception. As with most of the Bas-Lag trilogy (especially Perdido Street Station and Iron Council), the titular city seems more of a character than the actors within it. There’s also the fact that, despite some tantalizing hints of what’s to come, the defining action of the narrative takes much too long to evidence itself. Once that moment strikes, the book is afire and cannot be put down or out, but the slog to get there is an unfortunate misstep on Miéville’s part – one that may alienate first time readers as much as it bedevils his long time fans.

That frustration aside, Embassytown is, as with almost all things this author touches, a stunning achievement of weird fiction that takes many treasured science fiction tropes and, not content to merely turn them on their ear, lovingly decapitates them. Those who feverishly re-read his Bas-Lag books and wish for further installments should find this novel a delight, and while those who came in on later ships like The City and The City might find the linguistic gymnastics cumbersome, the ride is ultimately worth the bumpy beginning.

Embassytown comes out May 17th in hardcover.

Jim Tremlett – Eastwood


One Comment

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  1. Redhead / May 16 2011 10:18 pm

    I am so very looking forward to reading this! I’ve been a Bas Lag fan for a long time, and although this isn’t in that universe, I know it will be wonderfully weird. great review!!

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