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Book Review: Embassytown

 Guest post by Whitney Jones

Embassytown China Mieville

Embassytown by China Mieville

China Mieville is an amazing and infuriating writer. His worlds, meticulously built and lovingly detailed, force the reader to pay attention to every page for fear of being left behind. As a leader of the “New Weird” movement in speculative fiction, Mieville isn’t afraid to push the reader a little off-balance. His hard crime novel, The City and the City, followed a detective on a murder case that spanned two countries occupying the same physical space, mixing a deceptively straightforward narrative with a very complicated landscape.

Embassytown, his latest novel, is in the same vein as The City but with a harder sci-fi edge: a deep-space frontier town is faced with losing the fragile balance they’ve created with their non-human hosts, and the fate of a centuries-long peace hinges on human/non-human relations.

Avice Benner Cho is back in Embassytown  from her galaxy-hopping job as an “immer,” a navigator of the rips in the space-time fabric. Returning with her academic researcher husband Scile, the two are swept up in the politics of the Hosts, the huge, insectile aboriginals of the planet, and the Ambassadors, pairs of cloned twins engineered to speak the Hosts’ language. When one of the Hosts is killed by a religious fanatic, the future of humans in Embassytown is threatened—and a once peaceful species threatens to become hostile, perhaps even combative.

Mieville’s stories are always layered, and Embassytown is no exception: what begins as the biography of an interstellar explorer then becomes a portrait of how love can push people apart. Avice and Scile have an ordinary marriage: in the far future, monogamy is a quaint notion and marrying for procreation is a mystifying notion. But Scile’s growing obsession with the Hosts and their language forces Avice to wonder if it’s love or duty that binds them. Their separation mirrors the fracturing of the alliance between the Terrans (earthlings) and Hosts; it’s slow, sad and increasingly dangerous.

At the heart of the book is language—namely, Language, the tongue spoken by the Hosts with their double mouths. The Language of the Hosts is both physical and literal so that lying is a physical impossibility. But when one of them learns to lie—and when that Host is killed for his new ability—the book dives deep into the meaning of words and the flexibility of truth. It’s actually a recurring theme in speculative fiction, and Mieville’s conclusion is just as nuanced and layered as the story itself.

Readers who prefer linear story structure will be confused and frustrated, as the narrative stays with Avice but bounces around in time and speaks to at least a dozen characters. Still, Mieville gives his readers enough information to stay a step ahead of the action, if they’re paying attention. Embassyville takes place in an interstellar hamlet, but the struggle to keep peace and political balance is immediately identifiable.  

 About The Author

Whitney Jones is a freelance writer living in the Midwest. She writes on behalf of Colorado Tech.

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