Sunday, April 15, 2012

Perdido Street Station - China Mieville

This is my second time reading Perdido Street Station, and it definitely deserved a second read. The characters had all stuck nicely in my head, and the basic outline of the plot, but all of the details had slipped, some of them quite dramatically.

The story begins as Yagharek the Garuda arrives in New Crobuzon desperate for someone to restore his lost ability to fly. Garuda have wings, and his have been sawn off in judgement for his crime of "Second degree choice theft without respect". Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a renegade scientist, takes on the commission of restoring his ability to fly, and comes almost to the point of being able to fulfill it, when the person whose choice had been stolen by Yagharek arrives and requests that he refrain. Yagharek is guilty of a crime, has been judged by his community, and is now suffering the consequences. It is not Isaac's place to undo the punishment. It turns out that Yag's crime was what we would term rape, although the Garuda insists that to think of his crime as rape, and herself as a victim is to horribly misunderstand the situation - her choice to not have sex with Yagharek, and to avoid dealing with the repercussions of it has been stolen, in a manner which particularly disrespected her and their whole community. I *really* like this rephrasing of rape as the freedom of choice being stolen. This throws Isaac into a horrible situation - he has already accepted the commission, and in the process of completing it has become quite close with Yagharek, but if he completes his work and Yag is allowed to fly, he is basically judging Yag not-guilty, and if he refuses, he is judging Yag as being guilty. At least this is what it comes down to in the book. Or at least, that's what it comes down to in Isaac's mind. Immediately following we get a description of exactly what happened to Yag, and honestly I do think he's been punished enough - but I guess the point is that his society doesn't feel that he will be sufficiently punished if flight is returned to him.

I do love this story, even though it is essentially a tragedy. Isaac accidentally releases an enormous threat to the city of New Crobuzon, and is then forced to deal with it. While many others attempt to deal with the slake-moths, it is clear that none of them will be successful. At least not for a while, and the one who has the best chance in fact wants to recapture the slake-moths and maintain them in captivity which we've already seen isn't foolproof. The things Isaac and his friends go through in order to kill the slake-moths and rescue the city are horrible, ugly, and terrifying. The final battle where they manage to kill most of the moths, they also have to fight off the city militia who should be on their side, but who don't have a clue what's going on and aren't prepared to listen. Finally, once all the moths are dead and the battle is over, even the reward of being able to complete his crisis engine and let Yag fly is taken away by the horrible moral dilemma involved. No one comes out of this in one piece. There is no reward for a job well done. Every single thing Isaac loved or valued is gone, and he is forced to leave the city he loves (and saved!) in order to survive. Yet somehow the ending fits. It isn't horrible and depressing. Isaac has accomplished something phenomenal, and at least *he* knows it, even if no one else does. You don't save the world just for the acclamation - you save the world because it needs saving, even though it costs you everything. This ending is bleak, but beautiful at the same time.

Aside from the depressing and realistic bits (which are totally awesome, don't get me wrong) this book is full of totally fabulous characters and ideas and things. Different ways of being and thinking. Ideas about what it means to be human, or sentient, or good, or evil. Having a truly brilliant mad scientist as a main character is lots of fun. The Weaver is a wonderful character, although horribly confusing (but at least as confusing to the other characters as to the reader). The handlingers are fact all of the non-human residents of New Crobuzon are completely awesome. The world is gritty, ugly, and stunningly beautiful all at once.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When the Sea is Rising Red - Cat Hellisen

I read "Mother, Crone, Maiden" over on and was intrigued enough that I wanted to know more. The short story makes a lot more sense having read the book, but having read the short made the book pretty fascinating too.

Felicita and Ilven are both high caste young women in a society where women are not valued. They have considerable magical abilities which can only be unlocked by the drug skriv - which is addictive and expensive, and so they are largely untrained. Neither of them wants to be married off to some unknown man living far away, and both wind up making disastrous decisions in order to avoid this particular fate.

"Mother, Crone, Maiden" is the story of Ilven's decision, "When the Sea is Rising Red" is Felicita's story, but is largely the consequence of the catastrophe wrought by Ilven. It is a story about wanting more than is being offered to you, and how escaping from a comfortable but stifling future isn't always the best choice. Ultimately it appears that society has failed both of these young women, as well as most of the regular folks. I really enjoyed the perspective that Felicita acquires - she has wound up in a rather decent situation for someone who has run away from home and has almost no useful skills, and yet after a while she would give almost anything to be able to go back home if only to sleep in a comfortable bed every night. She has run away from her family, but still loves them, and is hurt by the fact that other people hate them. These aren't the typical reflections of a runaway.

In addition to some very interesting characters, the world itself is fascinating. The magic-using High Lammers are at the top of society, although their magic is limited by the availability of skriv. Lammers without magic are a rung or two lower, along with the Hob - another race, although both seem quite human. Some of the Hob have magic although having inherent magic is a death sentence if the authorities find out about it. Then at the very bottom rung of society are the Vampires - who have only very recently been admitted to society. Shunned by virtually everyone, the few who do live in town are extremely wealthy and thus much better off than the run-of-the-mill Lammers and Hob. The economic structure of this particular city has been slowly disintegrating and appears poised for dramatic change over the next generation or two. The High Lammers are only just barely holding on to their positions of power. And yet this isn't the only city in the world, there are others with very different economic situations. I'm very much looking forward to learning more about this place.

Overall, a nice quick read with great characters and a really unique world. For a first novel it is really impressive and I'm looking forward to more books by Cat Hellisen.