It’s important you understand. I saw you — you’re afraid of the scars. You should know what it is you see. Who rules us, their motivation and passion. Drive. Intensity. It is the scars…that give Garwater its strength.
This book is like no science fiction/fantasy story I have ever read. Amazingly dense — 638 pages, large pages, of high politics, intrigue, drama, and unfamiliar terms tossed around apparently on a whim — and intensely smart, this book is the book all sci-fi fans should point to when their higher-minded friends get snotty about their reading preferences.
Normally, fantasy authors love to explain things; when things are different, when an odd term is used, generally either the context or the exposition will explain to the reader what exactly is going on. For example, in His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman explicitly states what is different about the Church in his fantasy world from the Catholic Church of our world. Similarly, Robin Hobb explains exactly what The Wit and The Skill are in her Farseer Trilogy.
China Mieville resists that urge. He’s not going to explain to you what thaumaturgy is; look it up on your own. Grindylows and avancs are part of English folklore, and therefore any reader can Google away and figure out what he’s talking about. He won’t tell you how it’s possible for there to be a woman whose lower half is made up of treads (like on a tank) and a steam engine. He won’t tell you precisely how a Possible Stroke can wound an Actual person. Mr. Mieville assumes that his audience is intelligent enough to either get his references or come up with explanations of their own.
It’s nice to get that kind of confidence from an author.
This style also lends authority to Mr. Mieville, in that he writes about his world like it actually is his world, and the reader gets the sense that Mr. Mieville doesn’t explain things because he just doesn’t think to, as though something like thaumaturgy is so much a fundamental part of his culture that he assumes it has the same position in the culture of the reader.
In comparison to Mr. Mieville’s native fluency, Mr. Pullman and Ms. Hobb write a little like tourists or travel writers, always concious of the strangeness of the places they depict.
Mr. Mieville also rejects the temptation fantasy writers sometimes have to be ‘pretty’. Most of the fantasy I have read thus far is beautiful or at least picturesque — even when something is evil or ugly, it’s somehow not entirely horrifying. This may be because fantasy and sci-fi are generally somewhat escapist, and no one wants to escape to a world that’s uglier than this one.
Bas-lag, the world this novel is set in, is absolutely terrifying. This is a world where enemies can invade your nightmares, where pirates are real and will not only steal things, but steal you and your future, where vampires are not glittery and are more akin to heroin addicts, and where there are human mosquito-monsters who not only know how monstrous they are, they attempt to contact other humans when they are not driven insane by their near-constant starvation.
But none of this would make any kind of impact on the reader if Mr. Mieville wasn’t such an articulate writer. This is a man who went to Cambridge and the London School of Economics, clearly not an idiot; his vocabulary is so vast and so perfect that he can avoid Mark Twain’s fabled lightening bug/lightening problem. And somehow his language gets inside the reader and twists something, as in the scene where a main character nearly destroys a priceless and ancient book.
If steampunk and dark sci-fi are your thing, then by all means, run (don’t walk) to your bookstore and buy this book!