Tag Archives: sci-fi

Book Review: The Last Days of New Paris (2017) by China Miéville

Following last year’s This Census-Taker, China Miéville is back with another novella. The wait continues for a new Miéville novel – hard to think that his last one was five years ago – but The Last Days of New Paris does a pretty good filling the gap. It’s easily one of the oddest books that Miéville has released in a long time, and that’s saying something, featuring bicycle-people, wolf-tables and an old man who is partially made out of a steam train…

Bringing together true events and fictional ones, Miéville tells a very different World War II story. In the wake of the war, Paris is overrun with manifestations of surrealist creations – known as ‘manifs’ – who have been set loose on the world due to unknown circumstances. Strange creatures like the ones mentioned above roam the city along with Nazi soldiers who are hurriedly hunting for a secret weapon… Amidst this chaos, a fighter of the surrealist movement named Thibaut joins forces with an American photographer, Sam, in order to escape the ruined city.

As this description suggests, The Last Days of New Paris is an incredibly odd and slightly nonsensical novella – but in the best way possible. There are a number of brilliant and crazy creations featured throughout the story and, as Miéville points out in the afterword, almost all of them owe their origins to famous surrealist art. It’s easy miss some of the novella’s fantastical details, just because there are so many stuffed into it. Despite its short length, the author does a great of building up an imaginative and unique world while paying homage to surrealist artists at the same time.

And, despite feeling stuffed, I think The Last Days of New Paris is the perfect length. There’s definitely not enough material or depth here for a novel – and if Miéville choose to stretch it out any longer I could see the world of New Paris overstaying its welcome. At times the novella’s utter weirdness becomes a little bit tiresome, but I found the author’s afterword – which is an essential read – allowed me to forgive this a bit. He devotes a lot of pages to telling the story behind The Last Days of New Paris, and in many ways, it’s just as interesting as the novella itself.

I won’t deny that this release isn’t quite as satisfying or as immersive as Miéville’s best or even middling works, but its uniqueness is definitely something to be appreciated. It can be read in only a couple of hours, so I wouldn’t recommend paying too much for it, but The Last Days of New Paris is another fascinating release from one of my favourite authors.

Book Review: The Gradual (2016) by Christopher Priest

The Gradual is a book with some good ideas that doesn’t really live up to its potential. It also has one of the best hooks I’ve read this year – with the first chapter teasing a time travel element to the story that doesn’t really surface until halfway through the book.

I’m a sucker for fantasy/science fiction, and so the anticipation of the time travel twist – and exactly how it would work in Christopher Priest’s world –  is part of what fuelled me through the first half of the book. So it kinda surprised me when the time travel element of the book ended up being dull and unsatisfying. It slowed the pace of the novel down to a crawl (ironic?), and hindered the second half of the book from resolving the events of the first half very well.

In fact, the lacklustre second half just made me realise how strong the first half of the novel really was. For me, this was the first time that the introduction of a fantastical element has been a novel’s turning point for the worse rather than the better.

The Gradual focuses on the life of Alesandro Sussken, a famed musician who lives in the fictional country of Glaund. Throughout his musical career he finds himself repeatedly drawn to a set of islands that reside off the coast of Glaund that are forbidden to residents of his country. However, one day, a life changing opportunity comes along and Sussken is given the chance to take part in a musical tour of the islands.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that though – tons of different story threads and an impressive number of characters. This description only skims the surface of the novel’s first half, but trust me when I say it’s engaging. Things move at a slow pace in the first half (not quite as slow as the second), but Priest manages to keep things interesting. He builds up a series of mysteries that keep the reader engaged – craving to find out where they’ll lead to. By jumping between the different mysteries regularly, Priest keeps the book engaging while not actually having to move along any of the storylines too much. It’s a style that works for the most part.

But again, the second half… It isn’t as awful as I might be making it out to be (and the final twenty or so pages are pretty moving), but Priest just seems to squander all the anticipation he builds up. More storylines are introduced, making the book feel overstuffed, and none of them really seem to go anywhere. Mysteries are stacked on top of mysteries, and in the end only a few of them are really resolved.

I’ve got nothing against ambiguity, but the way Priest uses it in The Gradual just rubs me up the wrong way. It seems like he leaves many of his storylines’ endings ambiguous because he knows that the solutions to his mysteries have no way of being half as interesting as the mysteries themselves.

There’s definitely a fantastic book in here, and it’s worth reading just for the parts where it really shines.

Book Review: This Census-Taker (2016) by China Miéville

As I’ve noted before, I normally either love or hate a China Miéville book.  They either suck me up like few other authors’ books do, or I find them overstuffed and dull. This Census-Taker, Miéville’s new novella, falls somewhere in the middle (leaning more towards the love side). It doesn’t reach the heights of his greatest books (like The Scar and The City and the City) but it definitely isn’t a slog. In fact, if anything, I wish it was longer.

Focusing on a boy who lives with his parents on a remote hilltop, This Census-Taker tells a story of loss with a magical realism edge to it. The boy’s mother and father both have mysterious pasts and mysterious talents – his father, for example, is able to craft magical keys that do much more than open doors… But when a traumatic incident tears his home apart, the boy is forced to reach into the wider world for help.

It’s difficult to say too much about this book without giving too much of it away. Miéville is an author I normally associate with huge lengthy novels, and This Census-Taker is easily one of his shortest works (it is a novella, after all). It’s short enough that even describing the opening of the book feels like a spoiler… So I’ll keep things vague. Though the book is fantasy based, it is so on a smaller scale than most of Miéville’s stories. It’s packed with a bunch of weird ideas – such as a mysterious hole where the boy’s family throw their rubbish – enough to probably fill a novel.

There’s a lot of characters as well, but most of them don’t get a lot of page time – such as the titular census taker. This is something that works to the book’s advantage in some ways… Because of the short length, Miéville is able to keep things vague and mysterious. Just as we’re getting to know the world it’s snatched away from us, creating a need to savour the few details that we’re given. Because each idea and character is addressed fairly briefly, none of them stick around long enough to become tedious or dull. (In this sense it’s the complete opposite of Kraken.)

But… while this may be one of the novel’s strengths, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was its biggest weakness as well. The story feels like its only getting started when it draws to a close. Though I’m sure the author envisioned This Census-Taker as a novella, it certainly has an abrupt feel to it. It feels as though, I dunno, the author gets bored of the world before the reader does. Some parts of the novella feel well rounded and finished, but others do not. There’s just too many loose ends for my liking – too many things set up that don’t go anywhere.

But like I said, what’s here is solid – though perhaps not worth the price of admission. Maybe he wrote the story as a novella simply to ensure that the reader is left wanting more…? But then again, I was left wanting more with Perdido Street Station and that was over 800 pages long.