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“Perdido Street Station” is a maniacal metropolitan menagerie

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

Photo by Malcolm Streitfeld

Trains go roaring past on jagged iron skyrails that tear through the smoggy nightscape like festering scars. Aromas of frankincense and pepper waft through the marketplace. Along these dense streets, seas of bodies covered by fur, feathers, spines, chitin and bare skin jostle against each other, prompting cries in indecipherable tongues. Below faded stone bridges, the waters are clogged with filth.

You have now stepped inside New Crobuzon, the centerpiece city of China Miéville’s speculative fiction novel “Perdido Street Station.” Much like “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and “House of Leaves,” I had heard of this one before. I had even purchased and read a bit of the sequel, “The Scar,” though I never finished it. “Perdido Street Station,” published in 2000 and the recipient of the Isaac C. Clarke Award, as well as Locus’s 6th all-time best fantasy novel published in the 20th century, is a grotesque masquerade ball of whirring gears and steaming pistons.

Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a shaggy-haired, heavy set scientist, could’ve studied in peace for the rest of his days, with his insectoid girlfriend, Lin, always by his side.

Instead, when Yagharek, a wingless avian figure, commissions Isaac to restore the blessing of flight to his scarred and weary person, the gruff scholar finds himself faced with a task that will require a delving into the criminal underbelly of New Crobuzon for fresh specimens. Worse still, one of those creatures, a multicolored caterpillar, rejects all of Isaac’s attempts to feed it, preferring to waste away in its cage. Little does Isaac know that this enigmatic critter will soon become the stuff of nightmares.

The worldbuilding for this story is incredible. New Crobuzon is a thriving city with countless layers of subterfuge. It is inhabited by humanoid bugs, walking cacti, brooding bird-folk and dozens upon dozens of other strange and wonderful races, all equally distinct and fleshed out. Miéville describes each and every citizen with exquisite detail. His elegant haunting prose is simple and easy to follow.

Despite Miéville’s rather outlandish vocabulary, his writing is actually pretty-straightforward for the most part. Sure, it may become more tricky to follow when Miéville begins delving into the intricate science of the setting, but honestly don’t become too hung up on trying to understand all of that. “Perdido Street Station” is a book you’re meant to be enthralled by, like a ladybug lured into a spider-web.

Miéville engages all five senses with his descriptive language. The novel mixes together musings on the true meaning of art, keen-eyed anatomical observations and a tender romantic narrative in one big melting pot. The end result is a sumptuous buffet of clicking mandibles, croaking gasps and piercing shrieks that will always leave you hungry for more whenever you put down this book for the day.

I really appreciate a novel that makes me think. Page after page, I just had more and more questions that needed answering.

The cold damp cityscape of New Crobuzon fails to extinguish the warm fiery passions of its populace. However, while all of those hearts thrum together in a discordant symphony, perhaps the loudest one of all comes from the very walls and streets of New Crobuzon itself, watching and waiting ever-patiently to devour their prey.

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