Embassytown – Book Review

China Mieville is one author whose books I wanted to read for the longest time I guess. I bought this book and it sat on my shelf for a long time since I found it intimidating. I knew this would be a difficult read and would require lot of concentration and effort from my side and that was the reason for pushing it down my TBR list. I finally forced myself to pick it up this month and I absolutely loved it. I gave this book 4.5/5 stars.

I have heard people describe this author’s books as being weird. I think “weird” pretty much summarizes this book as well. When I started the book, I had no idea which way the story would take. Any guesses from my side about the turn of events in this book were proven to be wrong by the author. I don’t quite remember reading a book like this which made me take breaks in between to digest what I just read.

The story takes place in an Embassytown which is a town setup by humans on an alien planet. There is a city on this planet which has the aliens (who are native to that planet) called “Hosts”. These Hosts speak in a “Language” which the humans cannot speak. And the aliens cannot understand what the humans speak. Humans train “Ambassadors” in order to talk to these Hosts. So this book is all about linguistics, communicating with aliens and how similes and metaphors play an important role in a language. If you saw the movie Arrival or read the short story “Story of your life by Ted Chiang” and liked it, then this book is for you. This book explores similar issues about communication but takes it further than that story. There is a harmony between the aliens and the humans in this book which gets upset when a new ambassador arrives.

World building and writing – These are the two main reasons for loving this book. I love books where the author walks you through his made up world and explains how everything works there. Mieville did a fabulous job of explaining this alien planet and the aliens who are called “Hosts” by humans. Writing was truly amazing and this author uses way too many new and obscure words. I loved his writing style which was descriptive but still not boring. Usually I get bored when there isn’t a lot of action in a book, but this book did not bore me even for a minute. I was hooked the whole time turning pages to see what was going to happen.

I wasn’t that impressed with the characters in this book. I think what impressed me most was the plot and the ideas. I wasn’t a fan of the marriage system they had in place or the relationships that the main protagonist has with various people. I was not emotionally attached to any character so when somebody important died, I did not care much. When I think about the characters, I think none of them stood out or were memorable.

First half of the book was worth 5 stars.  The concepts about ambassadors and the Language were something that I really loved in this book. Also the idea that Hosts cannot lie. Imagine a Language where you can only speak truth. I still am not able to grasp that. The story was completely unique. I don’t know how to describe the weirdness in this book. It was nothing like anything I have read before. I found it difficult to wrap my head around these ideas sometimes. I had to go back and read few passages multiple times to understand what exactly happened. I read the last 70-80 pages again in order to completely comprehend the ending.

Some quotes I liked:

“Word spread because word will spread. Stories and secrets fight, stories win, shed new secrets, which new stories fight, and on.”

“I don’t want to be a simile anymore,’ I said. “I want to be a metaphor.”

“A promise fulfilled may be a classic moment, but prophesies mean anticlimax. How much more awesome was an unexpected salvation?”

“Translation always stops you understanding.”

I am definitely going to try his other books. I think anyone who rated this book low did not understand the concepts in this book. It is pretty complex and one needs to sit and dedicate enough time to understand and read some passages again and again to make sense. This is not a breezy read which you can read before you go to bed. Also what worked for me was reading at least 50 pages in one go. Reading this book in smaller chunks may not help much.

Have you read any of his books? Have you read any other book where language plays an important role?

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17 thoughts on “Embassytown – Book Review

  1. WOW. You had me at “this book is all about linguistics” (I’m a bit of a language nerd), and aliens? I’m going to go put this on my list.
    Have you read The Three Body Problem? If you liked something like this, I’m sure you’d like that series as well. It also had aliens that can’t lie, and… well, too much to even tell! Just check it out if you haven’t yet πŸ™‚

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  2. I haven’t read any such book or by this author. However, the last book that I read was also about humans going to some other planet. But strangely enough, the inhabitants of that planet look exactly like humans and even speak in English. Quite insane, na! I gave it 1.5/5

    Great review, btw.

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    • I think this one is more of an intellectual book. There isn’t much of action here. I didn’t feel it resembled Back to the future actually. This book was very different from everything I have seen or watched. Slight resemblance to Arrival movie maybe.

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    • The writing is not complicated. The English is pretty simple. The ideas that this book presents are very unique and nothing like you have read before so it takes some time for the brain to process it I think πŸ™‚ Do give this book a try.

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  3. I’m half and half on adding this. I love language and linguistics, but I find it hard to get through a book if I don’t care about any of the characters. Jean M. Auel who writes The Earth Children’s Series has a group of people who speak a language in which they can’t lie. It’s because they speak almost entirely in a very nuanced sign language, and since it involves your entire body, it’s impossible to speak a falsehood. The only thing they can do is refrain from answering, but they literally can’t lie. The book takes place in prehistoric times and imagines the world during the time more modern humans existed around the same time as Neanderthals with the latter only able to use this sign/nuanced language. A human girl is adopted by them, learns their culture and their ways, and when she eventually finds humans like her, she discovers the whole idea of lying and can see right through it lol.

    I might download a sample of this and see if it draws me in. Great review!

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    • Oh the characters aren’t unlikeable or something. It is just that the ideas in this book are so great, characters seem overshadowed maybe. Please don’t let that discourage you from reading this book as it is pretty awesome. If you love language and linguistics, you should definitely give this one a try.

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  4. Okay, this book wasn’t even on my radar, but I am adding it to my TBR right now, as the premise sounds very compelling. I don’t think I will be able to get to it right away, as I don’t have the mental bandwidth to read something like this at the moment, but will get it anyway, and read it the first opportunity I get.

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