I’ve mentioned before that I have difficulty singling out my favorite novels, since by and large the books I like are usually the middle part of a series. It can be difficult to recommend the second or third book in an ongoing sci-fi/fantasy saga, since often the most enjoyable part about those books is experiencing how the author takes an already grand idea and builds on it.
So, rather than do my “book report” on a single book that has helped shape the way I write, I’ll draw attention to an entire series, the brilliant genesis of “New Weird”: the Bas-Lag trilogy, by China Mieville.
Bas-Lag is an entirely unique setting that is also strangely familiar. Mieville’s world has smatterings of Lovecraftian horror, steampunk, high fantasy and industrial sci-fi, without really fully embracing any of those. There are strange primitive sciences that study the nature of chaos and vast automaton intellects; giant mosquito-people who harbor ancient secrets of sea-life from alternate worlds; vampires and hidden necropolises; horrifying Grindylow and mages who create time golems; organic artifacts that render people out-of-phase with physical dimensions. There are intelligent hands that take control of other creatures, giant inch-worm centaurs, mantis-headed humanoids and demon emissaries who work with the government.
Bas-Lag is an endlessly inventive place, a world suffused with darkness, dread, and a relentlessly macabre sense of humor. But don’t mistake Mieville for Pratchett: even Bas-Lag’s most absurd denizens and concepts are deadly, and while some humor is offered up now and again Mieville plays things straight, twisting the reader’s expectations at every turn.
Mieville’s ability to construct worlds is unparalleled. Rarely have I encountered such a masterfully crafted setting, a place as defined by its vagaries as it is by solid details. Mieville gets tremendous mileage out of what he doesn’t show us, out of what he doesn’t explain. He invites his readers to craft the world with him, to fill in the details. Oft times the possibilities are too great for us to even imagine, and therein lies the strength of the setting.
Mieville also writes with tremendous visual poetry. His prose is elegant even when at its most brutal, beautiful in both is staccato rhythm and rich detail. His work is a masterpiece of prosaic landscaping.
The Bas-Lag series is not a traditional trilogy. Each book is an entirely self-contained story, with characters only tangentially connected between them. A character mentioned only in passing in Perdido Street Station is the protagonist of The Scar; characters and places that bear only minor importance in the first two volumes come to the forefront in Iron Council. Each novel is unique in the type of story it tells, even while all three are unquestionably linked by their style and setting.
My favorite in the series remains The Scar, for its characters, it pacing, and its ability to continually raise the stakes without becoming preposterous. The new setting introduced in The Scar is entirely unique, and the plot unfolds in a more or less logical fashion in spite of the incessantly outlandish elements of the world it takes place in.
When I was getting back into writing a few years ago, the Bas-Lag novels were hugely influential on me. In a time when I felt like I’d read every type of story, Mieville crafted this brilliant saga that dared to be unique, that challenged lovers of dark fantasy to experience something that hadn’t been seen before.
I’m a better writer for having read these novels.
Perdido Street Station: Chaos theorist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin has a problem. In addition to helping a grounded Garuda somehow regain the ability to fly, Isaac may or may not be inadvertently responsible for the release of a deadly plague of slake-moths infecting the dreams of the citizens of New Crobuzon. Now the tyrannical government is looking for answers, and Isaac will have to recruit a team of questionable characters to help him put an end to the dream plague before all is lost.
The Scar: Bellis Coldwine, on the run from New Crobuzon’s draconian authority, finds herself a captive of the piratical floating city of Armada. The Lovers – Armada’s mysterious leaders – and their powerful henchman Uther Doul have devised a plan to make Armada a lasting presence on the seas. And even as forces within Armada threaten to sabotage the plan and the mysterious Grindylow track the city across the oceans, the Lovers push ahead in their dark quest for glory. They will lead Armada to the ends of the world to achieve their goal…and maybe to the edge of reality itself…
Iron Council: Decades have passed. New Crobuzon is in chaos. War with the shadowy city-state of Tesh has taken its toll on morale, and revolution is in the air. In the midst of the fighting is Judah Low, whose connections with the renegade entity called Iron Council have him on the run. While forces conspire from within to overthrow the government and Tesh makes moves to bring about the city’s destruction, Judah will travel across the wastelands to reunite with the Council, which may be the last beacon of hope for the city’s oppressed citizens.
Steven Montano is the author of Blood Skies, an apocalyptic military fantasy series, and a full-time accountant. Somehow he hasn’t lost his mind yet, but the day is still young.