Review: Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon Book 1 of 3)

Perdido Street Station - China MiƩville

Perdido Street Station seemed like a sort of odd but mostly-effective blending of genres.  After finishing the book I found that a lot of people classify it as steampunk.  This was my first experience with steampunk, so I can’t say if this is a unique specimen or not, but it was definitely unique in my own experience.

It’s hard to hint at what this book is about because the focus of the story changed as it progressed.  I don’t like to give away anything about the story that people wouldn’t learn for themselves within the first couple of chapters, and the story turned into something more than I had expected based on the way it began.  Talking about the beginning wouldn’t really represent the book very well and it would probably make the story sound less interesting than it actually is.  So I’m just going to keep my comments more generic and not mention the plot at all.

At first, the book seemed much more like science fiction to me than fantasy.  We find ourselves in a large city with a wide variety of alien-sounding creatures inhabiting the city along with humans.  It’s a large and complex city, full of misery and pollution and crime and prejudice and injustice.  There’s also quite a bit of discussion of science, albeit at a much lower level than where we’re at now, and with a heavy dose of mumbo-jumbo.  That mumbo-jumbo, combined with vague references to magic, is what finally convinced me I was reading a fantasy novel.  The story also has some slight horror elements to it and I even briefly felt creeped out a couple of times when I turned out the light to go to sleep after a particularly intense section.

The author is very descriptive in setting the scene for the city that the story takes place in.  Given how descriptive he was at setting the scene, I was surprised and a little disappointed that he didn’t go into more details about other things.  I especially wanted to know more about the world itself.  We’re told all about the city, but I don’t think we’re ever even told what world we’re on.  How did all these other intelligent creatures come to be living with humans?  Or, assuming we aren’t on Earth, how did the humans get there considering their technological state?  I guess my expectations were influenced by the science-fiction feel of the book.  In a fantasy book, it’s not that uncommon for a fantasy world and its fantastical inhabitants to be described without any explanation of how the world came to be that way and I’m usually not as bothered by that.  In a science fiction book, on the other hand, I expect those things to be explained.  

More strangely for a fantasy novel, there was almost no detail about the magic system.  I’m not even entirely sure there was one.  Magic was occasionally referenced and hinted at but there wasn’t any significant explanation about how it worked, who could harness it, what the limitations were, etc.  It really played very little role in the story at all and it could almost as easily have been left out with only minor alterations.  It just seemed kind of odd to me that the author put so much detail into fleshing out his city and its inhabitants but did so little world-building beyond that.

The first 25% or so of the book was kind of slow.  The author took his time setting the scene and establishing the background for the story and it took a while for the story to really get going.  I wouldn’t say I was bored in the early part because I was interested in the setting and the story and I could tell the book had potential, but neither was I particularly engrossed in it.  I started getting hooked on the story at around 25% and from that point it held my attention pretty solidly through the end.  Although the characters are well-written and interesting, I wasn’t that invested in them and it was the story itself that kept me reading rather than the characters.  The over-all tone of the book was quite dark and there really wasn’t much in the way of humor or happiness, so I wouldn’t recommend this book to somebody who’s looking for something cheery or uplifting.

This is the first book in a series, but it tells a complete story.  I thought the ending was pretty satisfying although my point of view might have been different if I’d been more invested in the characters.  It was more of a bittersweet-type ending, and it definitely has room to be followed up on.  I liked this book well enough to try the next one.  I don’t know what the next book is about; I just downloaded it blindly after finishing this one.  I’m hopeful that it will expand on the world-building a bit to answer some of my aforementioned questions and maybe follow up on future events from the point where this book left off, but if it tells a completely different story that would be ok too as long as the story is at least as interesting as this one was.