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Embassytown by China Mieville, book reviewEmbassytown is the eighth novel from China Mieville, one of the world’s leading fantasy fiction writers, and winner of numerous genre awards. It is set on an alien world at the edge of the known universe, where a colony of humans lives in a small enclave (the Embassytown of the title) in the midst of a strange world occupied by the Ariekei. Mieville is not overly specific in his description of the Ariekei or their world; he describes parts of it and its strangeness is clear, but much is left to the imagination. It is a world in which most structures are composed of living material, with a limited degree of sentience, manufactured and maintained by the Ariekei themselves.

Even the Ariekei’s physical appearance is not clearly described in the novel. They are capable of changing colour. They have a wing like structure which they spread to listen, and a second with which they can manipulate objects. In part they have a carapace of chitin, and multiple eyes which can bud in and out of their body and function independently. But the most important characteristic, and the key to the plot of the book, is that they have two mouths which speak different words or phrases simultaneously. It is the combination of words or sounds which constitute for them language. For the Ariekei, language and truth are identical. They are unable to conceive of anything which they cannot speak, and they can only speak that which is true. They can use simile or metaphor to liken things to other things, but in order to allow them to do this they have to create a literal representation of the simile or metaphor and act it out before it can enter into their language. The human heroine of Embassytown is one such simile – Avice, “the girl who was hurt and ate what was given her.”

The key events of Embassytown deal with what happens when ever the Ariekei begin to understand what is meant by a lie. In this review, I do not want to reveal too much of the plot, but as a fantasy/science fiction novel it is well-written and developed and should be greatly enjoyed by anyone with a serious interest in the genre.

However, Embassytown is significantly more than a straightforward fantasy novel –it is clearly, in addition, a serious literary novel of ideas, exploring the meaning of language and linguistics, and also addressing urban decay, the importance of communication in overcoming clashes between different cultures and the dangers of religious fundamentalism. China Mieville is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and a Marxist, and there is no doubt that his political views inform his fictional writing, which for me strengthens his work and ensures that for a reader there is always plenty to think about beyond the superficial structure and events of the novel.

My guess is that this will go down as an important book in the genre, and it deserves to reach significantly beyond the usual readers of this type of fiction.

Embassytown by China Mieville
Published by Macmillan, May 2011

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Written by Ian

Ian is a medical academic with a long standing interest in books, particularly literary and crime fiction, as both a reader and a collector. He has published extensively in the scientific literature, mainly on nutrition. He has two grown-up children and lives in Ireland.

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