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Where to begin with China Miéville?

The Last Days of New Paris
The Last Days of New Paris

China Miéville’s books range freely across categories and classifications – epic and urban fantasy, hard and squishy science fiction, crime, horror, young adult and more. He addresses, dances with and ultimately departs from the traditions and expectations of every genre. Although many thousands of words have been written trying to put Miéville’s work into neat buckets, a China Miéville book is ultimately, well – Miévillian. He is a category unto himself.


And what is Miévillian? ‘Tremendous’, ‘mind-blowing’ and ‘unmitigated brilliance’ are all true, but they’re not very helpful. The trick is to look at the books’ shared qualities. A Miévillian book provides glorious entertainment, powerful themes, intellectual depth, joyous wordplay, subversive approaches and with a few rare exceptions, monsters.

Each and every one of his books is an award-winner, a critical darling, and a reader favourite. So where to begin?

The City & the City is one of the most awarded books in the history of books - and with good cause. The novel describes two cities that are juxtaposed: politically, socially, culturally, economically and, perplexingly, geographically. An intensely political book, The City & the City is a potent metaphor for anywhere and any time – elevating it into the timeless canon of deeply symbolic works like Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ and 1984. It is also a damn good mystery, with a touch of the noir.

Embassytown is a city perched on the limit of the known universe, a tiny outpost of humanity on the world of Arieka. The native Ariekei are, insectile aliens with two mouths and a deep, deep love of words (they call it ‘Language’). Because of this, communicating with them is tricky and humans have to employ specialised Ambassadors – twins who have been genetically tweaked to speak in unison. The result is a complex, and fragile, status quo. For a book ostensibly devoted to aliens, Embassytown is very much about what defines us as human, interrogating gender and sexuality, language and thought, identity and agency. 

Published in 2007, Miéville’s first foray into the young adult genre was ahead of its time with its revisionist approach. When Zanna is revealed as the ‘Shwazzy’ – the ‘chosen one’ of London’s fantasy counterpart, Un Lun Dun – she and her best friend Deeba answer the call to defend that city from the evil Smog. After Zanna gives up, Deeba takes the quest on herself. Un Lun Dun features a quirky, rebellious, ‘ordinary’ girl who tackles The Big Bad with smarts and perseverance. She’s the hero despite the Prophesy, not because of it. As well as the carnivorous giraffes, Un Lun Dun also features oddly adorable sentient rubbish – including a seriously cuddly milk carton. For fans of Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, or anyone who enjoys a great story that entertains the reader while upending tropes.
 
A disgruntled scientist and his allies – including a de-winged hawk person, rebellious steampunk cyborgs, a bug-headed artist, and a badger – all tackle one of the great mysteries of the universe. The cast of Perdido Street Station also includes robot mobsters, the Ambassador of Hell, mantis-armed bandits, shapeless horrors, and dream-eating moths. Set in the bizarre and ceaselessly tantalising metropolis of New Crobuzon, and described in Miéville’s characteristically lush prose; thematically, Perdido Street Station is just as ambitious as the rest of Mieville’s work, with discussions of free will and agency and the rule of law and rebellion and causality and governance.
 
If you like reading epic fantasy: something with a proper quest, huge monsters and magic swords – try The Scar. Of course, with Miéville, nothing is taken for granted, from its delightfully non-traditional protagonist (a really grumpy translator) to the high fantasy realpolitik. In The Scar, Mieville constructs yet another amazing city in the floating rebel stronghold of Armada, home to a host of horrifying beasts, an epic naval battle, and, easily the most incredible magic sword in all of fantasy. The Scar is set in the same world as Perdido Street Station, but both books stand alone, and both can be read in any order.
 
In an alternate World War II, underground Surrealists summon sentient art to battle the Nazi occupiers. Who retaliate by summoning demons. Because of course. The Last Days of New Paris reads like a lengthy session of the greatest game you've never played: full of action, spell-slinging, and, of course, monsters. Miéville’s most overtly entertaining book to date, it is still laden with deeper meaning: hiding between the demons and the snipers is a heartfelt belief in the power of art – to liberate, to rebel, and to stand up against oppression. For those who dozed through their Art History classes, an intimate knowledge of art isn’t required, plus, there’s an enjoyable (in-world!) appendix at the end.

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A version of this article first appeared on Pan Macmillan's website.

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