Embassytown by China Miéville

book cover of Embassytown

Harsh rating, I know. The main problem I had with Embassytown is that the first half was very slow, and I never really got sucked in like I did with Perdido Street Station which had a similar problem.

The world-building wasn’t as intricate, even though it was pretty damn intricate compared to a lot of other fantasy/science fiction writers’ works. The Ariekei in particular, despite being the centre of the book, are so underdeveloped. The reader ends up knowing nothing about their culture or social structures. This might have been because the narrator of the book is a part of the settler-colonial society, which (having parallels to the British Empire) doesn’t care so much about the cultures of the colonised. But I still thought this aspect was pretty weak, a cop-out.

But I couldn’t get very invested in the human characters, either. The only one who really tugged my heartstrings at any time was Vin, and only because he was so devastated that Avice hadn’t been able to distinguish him, who loved her, from his doppel Cal, who had never even touched her in bed (as she afterwards realised). Avice was kind of cool in theory but didn’t seem that way in practice. I spent most of the book desperately wishing it was about her travels through space instead of about her being stuck on this boring, conniving backwater. Those travels sounded more interesting. And her husband Scile was a dickhead too.

I guess this book is very interesting if you don’t care to get emotionally invested in any characters and you just want to read about high-brow concepts (a “language” that has never developed the symbolic nature of the sign??? how) in an applied, fictional form. It wasn’t for me, though. In this light, I’m not sure what Miéville I’ll aim to read next; maybe Kraken. Once I’ve put a dent in what’s already on my “to read” list, though!

An addendum from 2021: If the themes of this book seem interesting to you but you’d like to read about them in a more engaging book than this, I would recommend Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire.


a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a socialist and a feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.