This time last year I tried China Mieville for the first time and came away terribly underwhelmed.
This Census-Taker was a dull, uneventful novella that left almost no lasting impression on me – 12 months later I can’t even remember the premise.
I’m happy to report The Last Days of New Paris – released just a few months later and of similar length – is much better. A rollicking, surrealist alternate history adventure full of Nazis and spies and demons.
In 1941 Paris an American engineer and occultist comes into the orbit of a group of surrealist artists and theorists resisting the German occupation. Together, they unwittingly set off a weapon – an S-bomb – that brings their bizarre, hallucinogenic visions to life, turning the city into a Boschian fever dream – and opening a gateway to the underworld.
We pick up the story almost a decade later. The Nazis and Parisian resistance are locked in a never-ending battle not only with each other, but also the “manifs” – manifestations of the surrealist subconscious – and the forces of hell. But resistance fighter Thibaut’s alliance with mysterious photographer Sam could usher in the last days of the nightmare.
There’s no way this premise should work but Mieville executes on it with such assuredness, such confident, unabashed aplomb, that it does. His imagination is a force of nature and his descriptive powers formidable. The book also works as a tribute to the surrealist movement, to Paris and to the power of art and creativity.
I’m starting to understand what all the fuss is about.