This a dark book, an excellent read, but a dark book all the same. If this was a western instead of the hero riding proudly out towards the sunset, he’d be battered, bruised and crawling out of town at 2am with a few locals throwing rocks at him for good measure.
The story takes place in the city of New Crobuzon in a world in which magic coexists with technology - thus we have both steam-driven computing engines and thaumaturgists able to create bizarre human-animal-machine combinations - the remade - as punishment. To make things even stranger (China Mieville refers to his style of writing as "The new weird" by the way) there are a variety of non-human races such as the Khepri and Cactacai.
New Crobuzon is like a vast dirty Victorian city in which steam power is high technology into which various extras from horror B movies have escaped. It is a totalitarian police state and ruled over by politicians who practically define corruption. The city is vast and ancient and the descriptions of it are rich and absorbing. The city feels like a place in which violence and fear (of the secretive militia) are normal. This state of low-level fear degenerates into outright terror as the events described in the book unfold.
Some of the characters and races in the book are more convincing than others. The cactacai come across like humans wearing humanoid cactus suits. The Khepri have the form of human women with giant scarab beetles for heads (Khepri males are dumb giant beetles). The Cactacai and Khepri are supposed to be races that evolved independently from humans but this does not really convince. However, the Khepri culture is interesting to give some substance to the race.
However, while I might complain about some of the alien races being like humans in rubber suits this is just quibbling in the face of the magnificent ediface that is the story itself. What makes the book so excellent is the richness of description, the realisticly complex main characters and the plot itself.
Isaac Dan der Grimmebulin is a freelance scientist with a Khepri lover, Lin. He receives a strange visitor at his lab - Yagharek, a Guruda (a race of giant bird-men). Yagharek has lost his wings as punsihment for the crime of "choice theft to the second degree with utter disrespect" and has left his band travelling a great distance to find someone who can give him back the ability to fly. Isaac, not knowing the nature of Yagharek’s crime but needing the gold Yagharek offers accepts the commission. In the meantime Lin, an artist, receives a commission from the monstrous Motley, a drug baron and one of the most powerful crimelords in the city. Lin is to create a sculpture of Motley using coloured Khepri spit - a traditional Khepri artform.
While researching flight Isaac accidentally unleashes a monster so terrifying that even the legions of hell fear it. The city’s response to the threat fails utterly and finally it falls to Isaac and a small band of companions to attempt to rescue the city.
I won’t say more about the story lest I give too much away. Suffice it to say this book definitely deserves to be read. Be warned though, it’s 867 pages long (at least the Pan edition is) and so you risk spending a lot of time (as I did) letting other things slide while you rest utterley absorbed in a bizarre rusty smelly and well, weird, world.