rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Yesterday's review.

I have never expected China Miéville to write a novel I could find completely satisfying. Perdido Street Station, while it has its good points, suffers on an external level from gratuitous pessimism and, on a level more specific to me personally, from containing more insects than I can really handle in a single novel. I have been unable to finish The Scar and Kraken, let alone Iron Council or Un Lun Dun.

But I keep picking his new work up, because there has always been something in each of his books to catch me, before I couldn't take it anymore; and The City and the City came so very, very close to being a book I could respect.

And now, with his first SF novel, I have got more than I expected, more than I was hoping for, and more than I remotely considered possible. Embassytown is unrestrainedly magnificent.

Avice Benner Cho was born and raised in Embassytown, the tiny human outpost on the world of the alien Ariekei (whom the inhabitants of Embassytown simply call their Hosts). The language of the Hosts is unique among known languages in several directions: one of the most significant is that it always has referents. Words, for the Hosts, are signs of things that have happened or are happening or do exist. Each word is related directly to a demonstrable thing or action. The Hosts, brilliant at an odd kind of organic technology, have neither the concept of writing nor the concept of a lie.

When she was a child, Avice was asked by the Hosts to perform a set of actions to act as a referent for future incorporation into their language. She does what she is asked (her narration of it consists mostly of saying "it was the most incomprehensible experience of my life"), and so she is a simile. Her existence, and this thing that happened to her and that she did, are the referents for an entire set of alien emotional states which cannot be explained to her, and which cannot be explained among the speakers in any other way.

This is not why she left the planet, as a young woman. She turned out to have a talent for the dimensional manipulation human people in this universe use to travel more quickly than light. (One of the things I love about this book is that different alien species do it differently, but there is a major conceptual comprehension barrier that no one has quite straddled yet, so no species is terribly clear on how the other ones travel.) She goes all over the galaxy because she wants to and it's interesting and it turns out she came from a backwater; she marries four times, to three men and one woman, though not all at the same time; she learns languages and sees stars; she grows up.

But being a simile may be why she goes home...

This book works for me on every single level. The worldbuilding is unique and subtle, the characters are three-dimensional, the political motivations and machinations are complex without being incomprehensible, the aliens are alien, and the density of cool ideas is impressive. I was not expecting a novel from Miéville that reads like Ted Chiang in a blender with Rosemary Kirstein.

And I was not expecting the prose.

In a book so about language, the prose is important, and it's extremely good. The section titles alone are gaspingly brilliant. This is one of those books where the invented words work, and do what they're meant to do down to the roots, and where word and sound are in harmony with every connotation that surrounds them. Avice's dimensional talent, for instance, is to immerse. Because the place the spaceships go is the immer. Immaterial and ocean (mer) and shimmer are lurking around the noun and verb exactly where they need to be, and the verb, in a book where Latinate wordroots are important, suddenly changes itself, immerse, immer se, the obvious reflexive... this is one of the most carefully and subtly constructed novels on a sentence-by-sentence level I've seen in a very long time. His ear is good, too, and the English reads as though it has shifted and evolved from current modes while remaining lyrical and flexible.

And the plotting, oh, my, the way that the simile she is does and does not govern everything about the entirety of the book and Avice's emotional state. I am bowled over.

I could rave about this book for a lot longer, but seriously: I loved this and I do not usually like China Miéville. I would like it to win a whole lot of awards and have a lot of attention paid to it so I can talk about it with everybody. And, while I devoutly hope he writes something else I care about someday (and the odds of that seem better than they used to), this is the kind of book where one of it, for me, justifies an author's entire career and makes me smile seraphically and love them anyhow even if they retreat into writing, say, knock-knock jokes for the entire rest of their lives.

And it was the greater pleasure for me because it basically came out of nowhere. There is nothing quite like the moment when you realize that, without ever thinking it was possible, you are reading a book you will love for the rest of your life.

Spoiler cut, because I can't resist saying a couple of things. Also, because this is so new, please rot13 or warn for any spoilers in comments. )


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