[personal profile] kittenscribble
I picked up a book by China Mieville, even though I had been underwhelmed by his young adult attempt, Un Lun Dun; people told me that his books for adults were much better.

I had originally wanted King Rat or Perdido Street Station, or ideally The City & The City, which got rave reviews practically everywhere; however, when I got to the local library, all they had on the shelves was Iron Council. So I went with that. It took a bit of time to get properly involved with the characters' quests and motivations, but the book really began to pick up about a third of the way through.

I gotta say, Mieville's much better when writing for an older age group. He doesn't feel the need to dumb things down or make things cute, or give everything happy, solid resolutions at the end of the day -- and that makes the writing so much stronger. When dealing with adult themes and complex longings, even the most fantastical of his creatures (and Mieville's imagination is crazy wild) are sympathetic and understandable.

There's quite a lot in this book, actually. On the grand scale, there's war, terrorism, industrialization vs. untouched environment, labor rights, political dissent, racism, and the difference between legend and reality; on the personal scale, the characters deal with conflicting ambitions, loyalties, and loves.

The writing is almost too ornate, but still manages to be understandable; the descriptions are beautiful, each word used with purpose, and the range of Mieville's vocabulary is staggering. I learned several new words, some of which I share here:

Something extraordinary comes out of the ice-flat sky. The Maru'ahm gamblers arrive in an outlandish biokiteship, a spindly, feathered, beetle-nacred thing. It lands and blinks its headlamp eyes, disgorges the gamblers.

...that was probably more than was needed, but I liked the phrase "ice-flat" and the bit about the blinking and disgorging, and didn't want to leave them out. Anyway, apparently "nacre" is the word for the iridescent substance that lines the insides of shells. I like how the word adds an extra layer of description, but if you don't know the word, you don't really miss anything -- you still get the beetle-nature of the ship.


The plains are suddenly full of them, scapegrace bushrangers. The permanent dacoits of the region have been joined by newcomers made bandit by the iron road. It exerts.

...scapegrace: wild, reckless, unprincipled. It looked like "scamp" and seemed as if it should mean "escaped from grace" but apparently there was more to it.
...bushranger: originally used to refer to runaway convicts in Australia, back when it was a prison colony; men escaped into the bush. Also implies a bandit who robs travelers from the bush.
...dacoit: this word was totally new to me. Apparently it's another word for bandit, anglicized from the Indian (that's Asian-Indian, Hindi/Urdu/Bangla, and used much more frequently over there if my quick Google-sample is representative of reality).
...Yes, that's two words for "bandit" (three if you include "bandit" itself) in as many sentences, and it still looks good. I am amazed. The man wields a thesaurus like a weapon.


In a moment, the militia began slowly to straighten, Ori braced himself, dropped with a cry when a ghost image of the wasp returned in air again momentarily varicose, and went, and came back once more, now nothing but a vespine insinuation, and was, finally, all gone.

...Let me pause to admire this use of the word "varicose," previously seen (by me) only as a precursor to the word "veins." But the reason I pulled this sentence was because of the word "vespine," meaning "of or pertaining to wasps." Vespine: a new word for me. Sure, I knew lupine and bovine and feline and so on, but "vespine" had escaped my attention until now. Asked to guess, I would have gone with "of or pertaining to Vespas." You know, the scooters. Which, apparently, meant "wasps" all along, and I just hadn't known.


When they went - driven out by the attacks of the locals or not, who knew? - they left five dead, leaked and spilled on the cobbles, turned bitumen.

...Yes, Mieville describes how the attacks turn people into puddles of goo, and then proceeds to slot in a word meaning "a mixture of organic liquids that are highly viscous, black, sticky, entirely soluble in carbon disulfide, and composed primarily of highly condensed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons." Seriously. This guy has an impressive vocabulary.


Ori was stretching out as if on a stem. It might snap. He still felt in that strange nightscape with Spiral Jacobs, his valedictory to the old man, when he had walked unmolested through a city turned into some psychotic, louche, broken thing.

...I had to look up the word "louche," because I thought it meant "depraved" and it didn't quite match; it meant "of questionable morality," which is pretty close. But this didn't fit with the rest; bits of the city had been depraved even before its change, and when paired with "psychotic" and "broken" I was expecting a word implying a bit more in the way of trauma. Oh well. Perhaps there's a meaning here that the dictionary is not giving me.


He fell through and to the ground slippery, wet with reality's blood, his inexpert passage having done trauma in its passing, blood that evanesced in iridescent skeins, a pavonine moment in the air that was gone, and left Ori disoriented and dry again...

...I thought maybe "pavonine" had to do with the dance "pavane," but instead it's a word with which I was totally unfamiliar: it pertains to the genus Pavo, to which the peacock belongs. Here, the word calls to the coloring or iridescence of a peacock feather.


They passed near the riverwall through long-emptied markets, where the integuments of the stalls were left, metal ribs slotted together, a herd of skeletons.

...I thought "integuments" to be structural elements, like studs or bones, but instead it's the outer covering, the skin. So now instead of picturing the skeletons of stalls, I should have envisioned stalls intact but empty, canvas still hanging to divide the useless spaces.


The smoke and miracle-colour blood that dripped from Toro's helmet was thick; the horns were sparking as if with friction. So much violence against ontology was straining the thaumaturgic circuits.

...I can't believe I didn't know the word "ontology," the study of being qua being. But then I was never as strong in metaphysics as I would have liked to have been. (Whenever I really tried to get into it, the engineer-self kept backing up and asking, "but of what possible use is all this nonsense?")


Judah's mechanism sucked the dark. It shifted, a tenebrous plasma; it was dragged in a slow resentful mass, the shadows become a cloud of unlight, and like water coiling down a plughole they wound into the cone, condensing, becoming darker as they went.

I initially read "tenebrous" as "tenuous," which didn't seem right. Then I had the vague idea that the word had to do with light, or dark; I wasn't sure which. Turns out it means "dark and gloomy," but "Tenebrism" is a painting style akin to chiaroscuro, which celebrates contrast. I predict I'll still be confused the next time I encounter this word.

In summary: good stuff. Fortunately Mieville's writing is such that not knowing a word doesn't stop you in your tracks, unlike some authors (Dorothy Dunnett, I'm looking at you (though she got much better after the first Lymond novel)). Also, despite the sometimes overly-grandiose diction, the characters and plot are still compelling. Off to the library for more.

Date: 2010-10-14 09:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pictsy.livejournal.com
I loved King Rat but hated Perdido Street Station. Un Lun Dun was also terrible, but in a different way.

I suspect that he actually just pores over the thesaurus to make his prose as oozy as possible. Some of it is such a stretch.

Date: 2010-10-15 02:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kittenscribble.livejournal.com
when he sticks synonym after synonym I suspect thesaurus usage, but when he just plops a word in there without similar fellows, I am impressed.

I didn't like Un Lun Dun much at all. I think part of the problem was that I felt he was writing to a checklist of "what appeals to the young adult market? Well, this formula worked for other people, so it should work for me." Whereas IC feels a lot more like he's not trying to please anybody in particular -- just having fun.

I look forward to forming opinions on other Mieville books.


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