Guest review: Lyndon Riggall on Embassytown by China Miéville

Pan Macmillan, May 2011
(Aus, UK, US/Kindle)

Reviewed by Lyndon Riggall

I admit defeat. I’ve been trying to present these events with a structure. I simply don’t know how everything happened. Perhaps because I didn’t pay proper attention, perhaps because it wasn’t a narrative, but for whatever reasons, it doesn’t want to be what I want to make it.

China Miéville has widely become regarded as the genre reader’s messiah. His books have consistently thundered the prize scene, and his name has become synonymous with both the Hugo and the Arthur C Clarke awards.

Embassytown represents his first dive into pure science fiction, and as typical for Miéville, he takes to the new ground like he’s been working in it all his life. Without spoiling too many of the surprises, Embassytown follows Avice Benner Cho, a rare human prized with the gift of being able to travel the ‘Immer’. She ends up in Embassytown, a living city, home to creatures known as ‘Hosts’, who speak ‘Language’, a form of discourse so complicated that specially bred ‘Ambassadors’ must be trained as a duo for the purpose of speaking it – it requires multiple words to be spoken simultaneously. The power of the Ambassadors over the Hosts is intoxicating, and when they abuse that power things spiral quickly out of control. Avice has the power to change things, but she does not have Language, and so she does not have a voice.

The world of Embassytown is impressively crafted. Time, for example, is typically measured in hours regardless of length – megahours and kilohours replace days, months and years. Miéville has invented term after term, many borrowed creatively from different cultures of our own world – to the average reader some pages or sections of the book could be nigh on indecipherable. Reading Embassytown is an immensely challenging experience, chapters and events pop in and out of sequence, and the world is meticulously, but by no means accessibly crafted. The book demands dedication before it spills its secrets.

But beautiful secrets they are. Embassytown is about love, war, life, death, truth and lies. It’s about the struggle for freedom, and the gaps forged by power between the elites and the populous. I don’t think personally that it will go down as one of Miéville’s most popular novels – it’s inaccessibility can be tiring for those unfamiliar with the promise of his reputation. For the hardcore fan however, this may be just the ticket, for while it is difficult to tread new ground in SF, the way Miéville walks will certainly set him apart. It’s a weird, hard, frustrating and detailed novel, but while that may put off many, for those avid fans who have read all of China Miéville’s works, I imagine this will be exactly what they’re after.

Lyndon Riggall is an avid sci-fi, fantasy and horror reader, and an aspiring writer. He collects his thoughts on life and books on his blog and on Twitter. It has been 1600 megahours since his last drink.

See also the LiteraryMinded interview with China Miéville from October, 2010: part one and two.

One thought on “Guest review: Lyndon Riggall on Embassytown by China Miéville

  1. Unfortunately, this book is not available as a Kindle E-book from Amazon US, but instead is available as such from Amazon’s UK site, and a much higher price!

    But if you want to read a portion of the book to get a taste of China’s skill, then the publisher has made the first 50 or so pages available online (also accessible via the Suvudu website):-

    It’s style is not especially radical. Clearly there is an influence from Samuel Delany’s “Triton” and “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand”, and Melissa Scott’s “Burning Bright” and “Dreamships”, as just a couple of examples. China Miéville has also scattered references to many other science fiction writer’s characters throughout the work, and it’s fun to work these out… Eg, there’s a character of a ex-Ambassador called “Bren”, a country called “Bremen” etc…

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