My feelings about Perdido Street Station, China Mieville’s sprawling steampunky saga of a strange city and it’s even stranger inhabitants, can be summed up in the way I feel about one character in the book, Yagharek.
Yagharek is a part-man, part-bird creature with a fascinating back story and, were his story to be presented in a standalone short story, I think I’d love it. But within the context of the larger novel, it occurs to me that, aside from a couple of plot-goosing things that could be given to other characters, Yagharek’s story could be excised from the book without losing anything.
A lot of Perdido Street Station is that way. There’s so much going on in New Crobuzon that it would be a shame if Mieville just ignored it. After all, there’s not just magic and steampunk technology, but a host of non-human races (many based on folk creatures from around our world), creatures that can slip the very fabric of existence, and even a sentient trash heap! Like Yagharek they’re all interesting in their way, but the time we take observing these things doesn’t really pay off in the larger story.
That story itself is one that makes a hard shift about halfway through the book. Until that point it’s largely the story of Isaac, a renegade scientist (it’s via Isaac we meet Yagharek), and his artist lover Lin, who has the head of a scarab beetle but the body of a woman. Isaac works on Yagharek’s assignment to return him to flight, while Lin accepts a commission from a powerful (and powerfully weird) organized crime figure. Along the way we learn some of the politics of New Crobuzon and generally get to know the world.
Around halfway one of Isaac’s beasties goes bad and the city is terrorized by a group of slake moths, giant creatures that hypnotize with the shifting patterns in their wings and then suck the victim’s dreams from their minds. The result is a shell of a person who is still alive, but hardly living. The book turns into a monster hunt for Isaac and others (Lin is absent, for the most part, being brutalized off screen for no good reason). The mechanics of the hunt are interesting (see, above, the sentient trash heap) but it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first part of the book.
All this might make it sound like I didn’t enjoy Perdido Street Station. I did, but it can be very frustrating at times. There’s something of a perfect storm where Mieville’s imagination running wild (and overtime) matches up with his purple prose and love for description. There’s a scene where one character meets his state handlers in a seedy brothel. Naturally, we get a long, loving description of said brothel (and its bizarre employees) that has no relevance to the meeting the character is going to and doesn’t reappear later in the story.
To a certain extent, Perdido Street Station reminds me of Bryan K. Vaughn’s Saga, which is also overflowing with imaginative locales, creatures, and technologies. Maybe it’s because we get to see all that stuff it’s easier for me to process. In print it sometimes gets to be too much.
Which makes the reading difficult, but not necessarily unrewarding. In fact, if you’ve got the patience for a deep dive into a world where everything doesn’t need to be all that important, Perdido Street Station is the book for you. There’s more that’s interesting and bizarre and wondrous than there is frustrating and (perhaps) pointless. Recommended, even if I do so with caveats.