Embassytown by China Mieville – Thoughts

Embassytown by China Mieville
Published by Del Ray, an imprint of Random House

I struggled with Embassytown when reading, and I’ve struggled over the past months thinking about it for a review. In lieu of a formal review, I am simply going to add a few of the thoughts that linger after all this time. For some context, here is the description from Indiebound:

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.

  • The linguistics pieces were very interesting, perhaps the most intriguing part of the story. The interplay of language and truth, inability of the Ariekei to lie, or even express abstract concepts unless they had previously been made concrete was consistently interesting.
  • The descriptions of the more science fiction elements of the story, such as the complexities of space travel, the interstellar political systems, and the systems that kept humans alive on the Ariekei world fell flat for me. They seemed neither interesting, nor well enough explained. I am not sure if Mieville has other works set in this universe in which these things are better explained, but it didn’t work for me here.
  • I found Avice to be a thoroughly uninteresting and unsympathetic character. I didn’t care who she was with or what she did, and the rest of the plot was not compelling enough counteract that.
  • My other two experiences with Mieville have both been in audio, narrated by John Lee. I think that audio might be the best way for me to experience Mieville, because talented narrators like John Lee carry me on past these pieces that would otherwise bog me down.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: personal copy.
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7 comments to Embassytown by China Mieville – Thoughts

  • I completely sympathize with your ambivalence toward this book! I picked up a copy of Embassytown after I read an article describing it as a “linguistic fantasy”– as a word junkie I was intrigued :) And the word-games did make me smile/think (I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of making metaphors) but I just could not get in to the actual plot and I ended up discarding the book halfway through. I’m impressed you made it to the end :)

    • Yeah, that “linguistic fantasy” pulled me in too. Like you I did appreciate that part, but this was by far the least interesting plot of the three of his books I have read.

  • Embassytown was the hardest Mieville I ever read, and like you, I had a tough time reviewing it, I just kinda threw my thoughts together in an attempt at coherence. As far as I know he doesn’t have anymore books that take place in this universe. Embassytown was linguistically ridiculous, i had to read it with a dictionary by my side. STill don’t know if that’s good or bad.

    Have you seen Mieville’s The City & The City? It’s a little more mainstream and much, much easier to read.

  • I went to a reading for Mieville for the release of Embassytown and he was breathtakingly brilliant — which intimidated me a bit. I’ve been reluctant to pick this up although the bit he read from was entertaining. Like you, I might need an audio version of the book to really understand/absorb/enjoy the story.

  • Pam

    While I haven’t read this, I can very much understand the whole concept of “getting” a book better when in audio. I think that some stories are better TOLD vs. READ

  • I really like Mieville, but I have never read this one. I will probably get to him at some point, but I should maybe do an audio one time just to see what it is like for his books.