Hugo Review – Best Novel – Embassytown

As I previously mentioned, I’m attempting to consume as much of the 2012 Hugo Short Listed works in order to make an informed vote.

I started with the Best Fancast category and am now on to the category of Best Novel.

This is my review of Embassytown by China Mieville.

Note, this review is obviously subjective and most definitely biased, based on the topics and style of writing which interest and entertain me.

This review may contain SPOILERS.

Synopsis: Immerser Avice Benner Cho returns to her home city of Embassytown on the planet Arieka after a period of space travel. Arieka and the local sentient species  the Ariekei (also known as the Hosts) are unique both in their technology (biological machinery) and their physiology (in their use of language). Their use of Language is significantly different in two ways from any other species humanity has come in contact with. For the Ariekei, Language exists only as dual simultaneous voices from a shared mind, requiring specially genetically bred Ambassadors (think linked twins) to communicate with them; a normal human’s attempt to speak the language sounds like gibberish to them. Also, the Hosts can only use Language as a description of the truth, they cannot lie, and they find the entire concept of a lie fascinating, holding Festivals of Lies to witness the Ambassadors perform such impossibilities. When a power play between the homeworld which colonised Embassytown and the local colony, goes wrong, war threatens to engulf Arieka and puts at risk the survival of all in Embassytown.

Plot: Whilst there’s a solid plot, it’s almost an aside in that a good two thirds of the story is just the logical progression of action / reaction cycles following the completely unintended consequences of an earlier action. In and of itself, this is a testament to Mieville’s skills at his craft, making it seem to effortlessly unfold.

Characters: We follow Avice Benner Cho around so it’s not unexpected that she’s the character we become most familiar with. Through her, we meet and become familiar with several of the other humans, Ambassadors and Hosts on the planet, but always from her viewpoint. Throughout the story we get to see significant character development in Avice as we see her as a child, a teenager, a young journeywomen on her first offplanet trip, returning well travelled and experienced, yet it’s more her mental and diplomatic development when she returns that interesting, as she becomes part of the functioning staff of Embassytown who keep things running in the ensuing crises.

Scope: Although mostly set in a single city, Embassytown is huge in scope. Wherever we are, we get glimpses of something so much bigger and grander, and in some cases, only glimpes of glimpses. When Avice recaps her travels, we get glimpses of a much bigger universe via mention of the different ports and behaviours. In Embassytown, we get throwaway terms of technology or concepts where we’re left to try and puzzle them out based on context. When characters talk about politics, they refer to other worlds and events that just were, as part of their discussions. Whether Mieville had this all mapped out or made it up as he went along, we may never know, but it certainly gives the impression of a huge scope.

Writing: As is to be expected of someone like Mieville, the writing is consistently solid with occasional phrases or terminology that had me admiring it at the time (although I can’t recall the specifics now). I definitely think I read this too fast, and a slower re-read would add so much more to it.

Pacing: I found the pacing a little slow to start with, but that was probably required to convey the necessary background. Once that had been established and key events began to occur, the pace picked up and rushed steadily towards impending catastrophe, like an out of control train approaching an incomplete railway bridge.

Other Comments: Of interest, gender seemed completely irrelevant in this world, both within the Hosts (we’re not sure if they have multiple genders) but more interestingly, within the humans and Ambassadors too. Whilst Avice is female, nothing she says or does is specifically relevant to her gender, nor are any other characters’ actions or behaviours relevant to their genders. It’s like Mieville has set Embassytown in an “evolved” society where gender is truly irrelevant. This seems to be quite deliberate, with specific terms such as “shiftfather” and “staffparents” used without fanfare to imply group parenting of children irrelevant of gender.

Overall:  I found Embassytown a bit of a heavy read to start with, but well worth progressing through it for the last two thirds of the book. I think Mieville is making some definite commentary on humanity and Language which I can’t go into detail with without spoiling the novel, but is probably worth a post of its own. Before I do that though, I’ll be making time to re-read it again soon and take more time with it to fully appreciate it. Whilst I enjoyed Leviathan Wakes more as an individual read for entertainment purposes, it’s Embassytown that’s got my Hugo vote so far. It’s got that combination of scope, story, message, world and gravitas that I expect from a great work.

Three Novels reviewed, two to go. Next: A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin



Best Novel Background Material:

Short listed in the Best Novel category for the 2012 Hugos are:

Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)
A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra)
Deadline, Mira Grant (Orbit)
Embassytown, China Miéville (Macmillan / Del Rey)
Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey (Orbit)


1 comment to Hugo Review – Best Novel – Embassytown

  • There was some debate here at BookPage over weethhr or not to include that one. I think I was the one who loved it the most, as much for the deliciously creepy atmosphere as for the suspenseful story. I know some of us felt the main characters were rather flat, but to me that seemed like a conscious choice on Niffenegger’s part, and it was one that I thought worked well with the story she was telling. I do think you might enjoy The Time Traveler’s Wife even if you didn’t love Her Fearful Symmetry.What other book(s) would you put on the list in its place?

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




Can robots do math? *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.