Yesterday I finished China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. It’s a prime example of his ‘New Weird’ brand of fantasy fiction, and my opinion of it reminded me of an old draft of a post I had languishing since way back when. That article was concerned with two of Miyuki Miyabe’s novels, The Book of Heroes and Brave Story; I’ve read her Ico: Castle in the Mist as well, but since it was an enjoyable but rather pedestrian videogame-inspired adventure I can’t think of much to say about it.
BS and BoH on the other hand deserve quite a bit of discussion because, like PSS, they seem to be conscious attempts on the part of their author to break away from the traditional and predictable types of fantasy fiction. This in itself is a good idea and makes for a more interesting read, but comes with its own problems. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum here because these three books are rewarding in their own right.
PSS takes place in the city-state of New Crobuzon, which can be best described as a mash-up of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, a steampunk re-imagining of London, and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. It’s a huge, dirty, chaotic place whose government rules over the myriad of magical races with an iron fist; the Peake inspiration extends to the prose which is vivid, detailed and uses lots of long words that aren’t often found in contemporary novels. It’s an acquired taste I guess but I felt it suits the setting very well.
PSS is as much an exercise in world-building as it is in telling a story, but the plot is this: a garuda, a bird-human type of creature, that’s been punished by his own kind for an unspecified crime seeks the help of a scientist to restore his ability to fly. During the research process some other sort of magical beastie is accidentally set loose on the city and the scientist, garuda and other mis-matched characters set about hunting the monsters down.
PSS is a very deliberate attempt to renounce the traditional Tolkein-style fantasy fiction in that it’s a more gritty and, strange as it may sound given the fact that it’s fantasy, realistic portrayal of how a society would function with magic involved. It’s a backlash of sorts, but also sets out to expand on issues that its respective genres often gloss over.
The scientist’s decision as to whether he should fulfil the garuda’s request after eventually discovering the nature of the crime committed is I think very well done: unlike most human societies, New Crobuzon’s included, garuda culture does not recognise specific offences such as theft, rape, murder and so on. Instead there’s the sole crime of ‘choice-theft’, sub-divided into varying degrees of severity that are punished accordingly. Trying to judge – or not judge – an individual who has been punished under a different system of morality was a fascinating plot thread, and the garuda’s search for his sense of identity was neat too.
Miéville should be commended too for avoiding a happy, cut-and-dried conclusion; one that wouldn’t suit the pessimistic and cynical light that the city is painted in. The problem though with a setting like this is that, as quirky as the characters are and as terrifying as the monsters are (honestly, the slake-moths were fantastic), New Crobuzon is so dirty and corrupt, and the view of it so cynical, that it begs the question of whether it’s worth saving in the first place. This is particularly significant when the prices that the unlikely heroes pay are so shockingly high.
For instance: another character, the scientist’s lover who gets caught in the crossfire of the resulting mayhem, gets a particularly rough deal. Again, miraculous salvation or merciful killing off of a character such as hers would be too clichéd, but unfortunately the alternatives that are left to a writer when these clichés are discounted are often far from satisfying either. Between the lurid detail in the prose and the writer’s awareness that making her a ‘traditionally’ tragic figure wouldn’t work well under the circumstances, the end result can be easily mistaken for gratuitously revelling in the suffering of one of the few likeable characters in the novel. Reading a discussion about the subject afterwards, I can understand why Miéville dealt with her in this way and of course it was only his second full-length novel at the time, but it is indeed a difficult thing to do a character justice without falling back on traditional tropes.
Perdido Street Station is a triumph of world-building with only unresolved plot threads and some awkward narrative dilemmas to count against it; the unfortunate thing about disappointing endings is that the ending is often the reader’s lasting impression of the work. More so than the opening: if PSS had a weak beginning (it doesn’t, by the way. The plot just takes an unexpected shift later on) it would be forgotten with what follows. A lot hinged on the ending though, so I feel for Miéville there.
Which brings me to Miyuki Miyabe’s takes on the well-trodden realms of fantasy fiction. BS doesn’t put a foot wrong from beginning to end as far as I can tell. I’m not into RPGs but I did get the impression that it’s either a tribute to, or a pastiche, of the gameplay structure that requires the protagonist to see his or her experiences as a series of challenges with rewards for appropriate behaviour. Is it a subtle hint from the author that youngsters should broaden their horizons and stop viewing the world through the simplistic, rule-based setup of videogames? I’d be interested to learn Miyabe’s view on the matter, being as she is a writer of good old fashioned books.
There’s a lot of other moral and socio-political stuff woven into its magical world as well. Because That world is the product of each Traveller’s imagination, it manifests itself as a microcosm for the human condition: greed, heroism, trust, prejudice, cowardice and courage all exist side-by-side as a representation of the visiting hero’s own worldview and feelings.
Brave Story is, to me, a refreshing take on the RPG videogame structure and the Neverending Story-style magical adventure tale that inspires them. Again, there’s plenty of injustice – interestingly, quite a bit in the Real World as well as the fantasy one – and the ending is a pleasant surprise. Like the difficult decision about the garuda’s guilt in PSS, there are a lot of nuances to the decisions that the hero makes and different readers will I’m sure have their own varying interpretations of whether they were good or bad.
Interestingly, The Book of Heroes was written later than Brave Story, and considering how it didn’t work nearly as well for me, I’m not sure what it was trying to say because I felt that BS had re-imagined the “kid goes into a fantasy world to solve real-world problems” premise already. From a planning point of view, it was interesting to see that the heroine’s challenge doesn’t take the form of a rites-of-passage tale like BS, nor is it a physical manifestation of an antagonist like the terrifying slake-moths of PSS. Instead, the enemy is a more abstract one, and on that level BoH is extremely clever.
It’s also surprising, especially for a novel intended for children or young adults, to be a very harsh fantasy world underpinned with such cruel and pitiless mechanics. As Owen stated in a recent Twitter discussion on the subject, it’s almost nihilist when placed alongside BS, which on its own is unusual and is therefore an interesting experiment. There’s a lot of injustice and demand for development of the protagonist to be a stronger, better person, but at least in BS it’s not overdone; the heavy cynicism of PSS gave an unfortunate sensation of Miéville reiterating the fact that sometimes reality is harsh ad nauseam through the pessimistic worldview. In BoH this is even more pronounced: the underlying message seems to be the writer smugly and needlessly reminding me, “Life’s not fair. Deal with it.” Well, okay. I knew that already though, being an adult who lives in the Real World and reads a lot of fiction, so I don’t need to read a work of fantasy to realise that.
This feeling is more obvious in BoH than even PSS because it’s not just the worldview of the story that’s cruel and unjust: the narrative itself felt to me to be needlessly unfair on its protagonist. The ‘downer’ ending of PSS and the unexpectedly bittersweet conclusion of BS are logical consequences of their respective settings so are understandable to a greater or lesser degree, but BoH is harder than either of the other two to accept.
The heroine is constantly chastised by the other characters for being weak, idealistic and naïve; but she’s an ordinary child acting on simple, honest intentions. She sets out to save her brother based on a very scant outline of his predicament, has important information withheld from her but is again chastised for not knowing the said information, often by the characters who do actually know what’s going on and are supposedly trying to help her.
BoH may have worked better if the heroine was unlikable – and was therefore deserving of the derision poured on her – or, perhaps more appropriate, if she’d been a bit older and therefore better equipped to rise to the challenges she faces. The supporting characters don’t like her, and I got the feeling that the author didn’t like her either, which felt strange to me. Surely, if your protagonist is poorly suited to the role, why not write a more suitable one instead?
I don’t know if BoH was intended to be a different sort of attempt at tearing up the fantasy fiction rulebook, but I don’t think the breaks from convention it took worked. If a songwriter wants to deliberately avoid the three-chord, twelve-bar song structure that constrains contemporary rock and pop music for instance, that’s understandable and is often a refreshing change. There are still rules about melody and structure to follow though, and if they’re deliberately ignored too the piece becomes less listenable and meaningful.
I’m finding that written fiction works in the same way. I welcome a story that goes off in surprising directions, but it’s possible to go too far. Perdido Street Station was an early attempt from Miéville and I found Embassytown to be every bit a strange and surprising, but it is successful on every level I can imagine – it retains that quirkiness and magnificent world-building but works even in the aspects where PSS didn’t. As far as Miyabe’s concerned I wish I’d read Book of Heroes before Brave Story now, because BoH left a bad taste in my mouth that BS may have been able to dispel.
And yes, I know over 1800 words makes a lot to read through on a blog post, but I felt that leaving it at “your mileage may vary,” wouldn’t do these titles justice. Thanks for getting this far!