Posted by: markfender | August 7, 2012

Bas-Lag

I just finished reading the Bas-Lag books by China Miéville. Whee!

The Bas-Lag books (while there are three of them, they’re not really a trilogy) take place in a fantasy world unlike most others. It’s a Victorian-tech level world with steampunk technology, demons, elementals, golems, strange otherwordly invaders that break space and time, and bizarre fantasy races (like a race of people with bugs for heads – not the heads of bugs but actual full-on bugs with legs and everything). It’s been described as “New Weird” (what was the “Old Weird”?) as it doesn’t correspond to what you typically think of fantasy stuff. It’s all richly imagined and definitely non-standard fantasy fare.

Perdido Street Station
I’d actually read this one when it came out and walked away fairly unimpressed. It was kinda rambly and slow. Miéville has a very large vocabulary that made it slightly difficult to read. However, his vocabulary serves him well when it comes to describing the horror of the slake-moths. I left that book thinking that he was a good writer that I wasn’t all that interested in reading any more of his works. I’m honestly not sure why I chose to revisit him now.

On a second reading, the book was not as slow going. However, it did still suffer from lots of random threads that only 100 pages later reconnect to the main story. The beginning of the book takes a bit to get going as he introduces a lot of characters and ideas that take a while to pay off. Eventually, it does all come together into a pretty gripping tale of monster-hunting and horror but the journey to that place could have been smoother. There’s also a pretty bad deus ex machina at the end when a character only mentioned in passing shows up and helps saves the day. I also never really connected with any of the characters. However, the horror elements were well done and kept me interested once they were finally unleashed. While it wasn’t his first book, I do think it suffers a bit from new writer syndrome as he’s not quite able to pull off the feats he’s attempting in the book. Still, it’s certainly not terrible.

The Scar
This book takes place right after the events of Perdido Street Station, but doesn’t directly connect to that book. Instead, it’s a pirate adventure on board a giant flotilla of ships bound together into a wandering city. This one also has a lot of random elements that eventually coalesce into a coherent story, but I found that those elements came together quicker. A random section of the book would involve something not talked about so far, but within 20 or so pages, that digression was relevant to the main story, so it didn’t feel like it wandered around as much as the first one. I also really liked the character of Bellis because she was smart enough to connect all the pieces without quite realizing how everyone was using her. While her cold demeanor probably won’t win her any fans, I liked her more than any else of Miéville’s characters so there’s that. The story in this one seemed tighter overall and I quite enjoyed it. Plus, it involves pirates.

Iron Council
This one has far less to do with the previous books (There’s a few mentions of characters from the first one, but they’re not important enough to the overall proceedings so they really just qualify as easter eggs for those who have read the previous books) but does return to the setting of the first book, the decadent industrial city of New Crobuzon. While New Crobuzon has always been depicted as a fairly terrible place ruled over by an aristocracy uninterested in the plight of the little people, Miéville dials that way up in this one. In fact, it’s pretty much a political screed in every sense. I hated pretty much every character in this one, but that’s because they were all political idealists and I have little tolerance for that mindset (The first thing to go when politics get involved: Idealism). Too many things in this book revolved around people buying into others’ political ideologies that I wasn’t buying, which just makes everyone act naive. For the dark and gritty world that Miéville has created, it just didn’t feel right. Not to mention the ending wasn’t that great.

Overall, if you wanted to read one of these, I’d recommend The Scar. I have very few complaints about that one. The others are slightly more troublesome. Perdido Street Station is definitely the next-best one and features some decent world-building, but does take awhile to really get going. Miéville’s style can take getting used to. I obviously didn’t much care for it when I first read him, but I find it more tolerable now. That might just because I know what the big words he uses mean much more than I did 10+ years ago. And this handy feature on my Kindle to just look up words with a click makes weird words a lot more tolerable. (I noticed a trend: whenever I didn’t know a word and had to look it up, it was usually because it was last used in the 17th century…in Britain. And Miéville sure likes the word “palimpsest.”) I’m definitely more partial to his writing than I once was and would be interested in checking out some of his more recent work.

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