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As a self-confessed fan of the science-fiction and fantasy genres, I decided to pick up Embassytown on a whim a few weeks ago - not having previously heard anything about the Author, China Mieville, but somewhat lured by the praise on the back cover from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, an author that I know and like. I must stress that I wasn't disappointed, and that the book has a lot of redeeming features, including an entertaining and imaginative story - but that it requires a certain amount of effort to read; at least initially (I will explain more later).
Not to give too much away for those considering buying this book (and I won't try to dissuade you), but the tale is set in the future, in a time when the human race is spread over vast galaxies, and inter-stellar travel is possible through a skill some people posses, called 'immersing'. The main character, a young woman named Avice, is one of those that posses this skill. Avice grows up in Emabassytown, a far-flung outpost of the human race's spread of civilisation - and a city that is also shared by an alien race, the Ariekei.
The Ariekei were the original inhabitants of the planet upon which Embassytown sits - with humans only a relatively recent addition. However since the humans' arrival, much of their efforts have been bent towards creating a peaceful existence between the two races, and further, learning to communicate with the Ariekei despite the differences in language and thought processes (The Ariekei can't lie, due to a strange quirk in how they vocalise thoughts).
Avice's skill as an immerser sees her climb the political ladder and social circles as she gets older, and as the plot progresses, a potential crisis emerges between the two races that could threaten to destroy any hope of a peaceful coexistence, along with most of the life on the planet. The book follows Avice on her travels beyond Embassytown, and its home planet, Arieka - in her role as an Immerser; and then latterly on her return home and throughout the ensuing crisis.
Quick note. The structure of the tale works very well indeed and lends itself well to having more than one story thread progressing at the same time. The majority of the story switches alternately between the past and the present, with the events in the past moving that much swifter, so that before the end of the book, the two story-lines merge into one cohesive plot line. Clever huh? I thought so.
When you get into it, it's a great read, with a storyline that will keep you turning the pages long after you know should have gone to sleep tomorrow because its Monday and you have an important meeting and...ah well, just to the end of this chapter then - that sort of thing. However, on to the issue raised at the beginning...
To explain further.... given the futuristic setting of the story, the book makes use of an (at least initially) overwhelminig number of fictional words that form the make up of the language spoken and the key concepts covered in the tale. The closest comparisons I can offer for this style, where the Author effectively creates their own language, would be 'A Clockwork Orange' by Anthony Burgess; to a certain extent, the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, and perhaps 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell (I'm sure there are many more).
This approach goes one further than your average science-fiction or fantasy novel, which uses fictional names for characters, places and some of the key concepts; and really can leave you feeling a bit bamboozled after about the first fifty pages. However, you may note that the comparisons offered above (or the closest ones I could think of) are all examples of famous Authors, a fact which goes a long way to supporting the fact that this style can be very effective if well employed.
I think this is another example of where this style can work, but others may differ on that point. Helped through some exceptionally vivid descriptions of the world in which the main characters play out the story, readers should be able to manage, and will appreciate the sense of satisfaction and smugness that comes with the realisation that it paid to keep going.
TWO MORE WORDS TO THE WISE...
One: There is a picture of China Mieville provided on the inside of the back cover of this book (at least there was in my version). Turns out China Mieville looks like a guy I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley (and may possibly have been a bully at my secondary school). Just goes to show you can't judge a book by its cover, and much the same can be said of Embassytown
Two: This is not a book I would recommend to those of you who are relatively new to reading Science-Fiction or Fantasy novels. Perhaps a book for the more discerning fan.