It is not, I’ll admit, a great opening.
Fantasy novels often weigh themselves down with prologues and quotes from non-existent texts or poems. It’s part of the furniture of the genre, I suppose. Perdido Street Station opens with a five-page piece that is entirely in italics and which is not, for quite some time, clear as to its perspective or purpose. It relates the impressions of a person come new to New Crobuzon, an immense, sprawling, wretched, reeking city, but it’s for us, the brand new reader, to find a footing. We don’t yet have a core from which to understand the story, and thus the vague phrasings from this section fall flat. And why is it vague? To keep the identity and purpose of this character a secret. And why is that? Exactly.
Finally, the use of italics further distances the reader. Whenever I read a section of a text in italics I always feel as though I am reading something in parenthesis, and that impression does little to engage me. Keep in mind this is the first five pages – this should be engaging.
The first chapter is much, much better, however, and I would like to make special mention of the first two pages where the feel of the city is set down. Miéville is the first fantasy writer I’ve read who mentions paprika at all, let alone on the first page of the first chapter. The use of specific smells (rather than, say, ‘the morning air smelled of cooking’) really helps to bring the city to live. I can believe a city where paprika and cinnamon are used. It’s not all good, though, as descriptions such as ‘toys’, ‘earthenware products’ and ‘countless other goods’ are used. It’s important not to be wordy, but the cooking description was so effective it becomes a shame that the next paragraph somewhat spoils it.
We move on then to two primary characters, both of whom will be point-of-view characters throughout the novel. Isaac and Lin. Isaac is a human (it’s never made clear, but most citizens of New Crobuzon are presumably human) while Lin is a khepri. People are people, but khepri are not – they are human up until their neck, with their head similar to a scarab. They cannot speak, which of course means they can’t kiss.
Miéville touches on, but never really uses, the concept of xenophobia. It is here in the first chapter, when Isaac laments the fact that his artist girlfriend Lin is able to flaunt her other-species partner, while he cannot. And that’s about as far as it goes, because to go any further wouldn’t really work for the rest of the world he has created. This is a world (we will learn) filled with other species, but, far worse, is also a world where people can be Remade, which can be minor (the fingers on their hands replaced with thumbs) or major (horrors created to be organic machines of death or utility), or anywhere in between. In this world, what time for xenophobia? Certainly it would be present in some areas, but Miéville is never quite able to convince us that a bohemian artist and a renegade university professor would have any trouble being together. He tries, but it doesn’t work.
And yet. It will become clear, but the relationship between Isaac and Lin is arguably the strongest part of this novel. When they are together, or involved with one another in some way, the novel is at its best. They are the axis upon which this novel turns. It is refreshing in a fantasy novel to have a loving couple together from the start, and for them to be both erotically and romantically interested in one another. I believe their relationship. It doesn’t serve primarily as plot.
In all, a good start. New Crobuzon is developing its character, and Isaac and Lin, theirs. The ending of the chapter, which sees Lin presenting herself as vulnerable to Isaac is touching, but its difficult to understand why there isn’t an analogue for Isaac, too. It makes of him a taker in the relationship, and that’s unpleasant (and never acted upon). Perhaps he should have made himself vulnerable, too.
It is, though, a real shame about that first part all in italics. Almost a deal-breaker, honestly.
Please take a look at my Let’s Reads page for other chapters from this book, and works.as they are added.