Perdido Street Station
is a masterpiece of world creation. China Mieville has created a fantastic twisted universe, as rich as Indian curry, and as weirdly fascinating as a freak show at a village fair. The city of New Crobuzon continues to fascinate long after one finishes one's journey through it.
New Crobuzon is a city in an unspecified alternate steampunk universe, positioned at the confluence of the rivers Tar and Canker. It is populated a medley of races, human and non-human: and the non-human ones remind one of a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. There are the khepri, with female human bodies and a head which is made of an entire scarab: the head can couple with male scarabs and produce offspring, while the bodies can couple with human males for pleasure. There are the cactus people who are literally walking cactii; there are the wyrmen who are rather like flying gargoyles; there are the vodyanoi, frog-like creatures who can sculpt water; and the garudas, flying man-birds very much like the Indian mythical being with the same name. Also, there are the Remade, whose bodies have been surgically altered in most horrible fashions as punishment. There is also a Mafia don with a body composed of many conjoined ones and a spider god of sorts who travel across different dimensions on the world-web...
New Crobuzon is a republic of a sort, but ruled by corrupt politicians: the city gives one the impression of a cross between Victorian London and an America ruled by extreme right-wing Republicans (Mieville, a communist, seems to be making a statement here that any society dedicated to the service of Mammon will ultimately come to this). Crime is rampant: social inequalities are glaring: criminalisation of politics is the order of the day. The description of the dark underbelly is so stark and merciless that some sections (especially the one about the Remade whores) almost had me retching in disgust.
This universe has a sort of weird science which is a mixture of steampunk and magic. One day, a garuda named Yagharek whose wings have been removed as a punishment comes to the renegade scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin. His request: make him fly again. Isaac cannot resist a challenge. His single-minded efforts conjure up a pair of wings for Yagharek sets in motion a chain of events which result in the discovery of crisis energy, the unleashing of a quintet of Slake Moths (horrific creatures who devour the mind and excrete it as nightmares) over the city, and the awakening of sentience in robotic slaves. In true disaster-movie tradition, events peak to a climax at the base of Perdido Street Station: the meeting point of various train lines, the seat of various government offices, and the tallest building in the city.
The pictorial effect of the novel is awesome. One can easily imagine the movie in 3D. The canvas is so huge and the details so intricate that it literally takes one's breath away. The author has taken a lot of pains to craft New Crobuzon, detail by painstaking detail-history, geography, politics and mythology. One may very well say that the city is the protagonist of this story...
...And IMO, that is its major failing. Mieville has spent too much time in developing his world that his story pales in comparison. His protagonists are not very likeable (especially Isaac); the story moves in rather predictable fashion; and towards the end, the novel drags a bit. At each and every point, we can see the author adding one more loving touch to his creation, expanding a detail here and there, many a time at the story's cost. This is what dragged the book down from five to four stars for me.
But as an unparalleled creation of fantasy, New Crobuzon stands alone: all you SF and fantasy fans out there, what are you waiting for? Go visit it!