Fantasy writer pushes language to new frontier

Jim Higgins / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Embassytown” by China Mieville (Del Rey, 368 pgs., $26)

Leave it to China Mieville, the British creator of fantasy, science fiction and the weird, to write a provocative novel about language, in which a central human character is a living Simile in an alien tongue, and in which thousands of sentient creatures may die because of the way a phrase is pronounced — or isn’t pronounced.

Mieville, whose earlier books include the Hugo Award-winning “The City&The City,” deposits readers in Embassytown, a human enclave on the distant planet Arieka. The book’s narrator, Avice Benner Cho, describes her childhood’s first encounter with a native Host:

“The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulation. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forking skin that was its lustreless eyes regarded me. It extended and re-clenched a limb.”

Mieville does this so well in his world-building: He gives readers just enough information to imagine the otherworldly.

“Embassytown” is the most engrossing book I’ve read this year, and the latest evidence that brilliant, challenging, rewarding writing of the highest order is just as likely to be found in the section labeled Science Fiction as the one marked Literature.

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“Embassytown” by China Mieville (Del Rey, 368 pgs., $26)

Leave it to China Mieville, the British creator of fantasy, science fiction and the weird, to write a provocative novel about language, in which a central human character is a living Simile in an alien tongue, and in which thousands of sentient creatures may die because of the way a phrase is pronounced — or isn’t pronounced.

Mieville, whose earlier books include the Hugo Award-winning “The City&The City,” deposits readers in Embassytown, a human enclave on the distant planet Arieka. The book’s narrator, Avice Benner Cho, describes her childhood’s first encounter with a native Host:

“The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulation. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forking skin that was its lustreless eyes regarded me. It extended and re-clenched a limb.”

Mieville does this so well in his world-building: He gives readers just enough information to imagine the otherworldly.

“Embassytown” is the most engrossing book I’ve read this year, and the latest evidence that brilliant, challenging, rewarding writing of the highest order is just as likely to be found in the section labeled Science Fiction as the one marked Literature.

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