In a futuristic world on a faraway planet, Avice Benner Cho lives in the main colonists’ city of Embassytown. The planet’s natives, whom the colonists refer to as Hosts, have a unique system of language involving two simultaneously spoken voices that makes communication with them largely impossible; while the humans can understand the Hosts, the Hosts can’t understand most humans at all. The only people even remotely able to speak to the Hosts are the Ambassadors, identical twins who have been specifically engineered for the purpose. So when a new Ambassador arrives on the planet, and they’re not identical twins at all, everyone is shocked by the sheer impossibility of it. And when this Ambassador speaks to the Hosts, even more astonishing — and dangerous — consequences ensue. Avice, though not an Ambassador, has a special relationship to the Host language because she is one of its living similes. Can she find a way to mitigate the disasters caused by the new Ambassador?
If you’re confused by my summary of this book, don’t worry — I was confused for about the first half of the novel! Miéville creates an extremely intricate world full of technobabble and doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining things; rather, the reader is thrust directly into the world and left to sink or swim. I usually don’t mind this technique, since lengthy world-building exposition can be tedious. But because the world is so complicated, it took me a while to figure out which things were important to the story and which were just window dressing. Additionally, the book jumps between two different time periods, which confused me at first. But once I figured out where the story was going and how the past and present narratives fit together, I became much more invested. People who are interested in linguistics will be fascinated by Avice’s eventual solution to communicating with the Hosts. The book also touches on issues of colonialism: although the humans aren’t overtly oppressors, there is a shadowy empire in the background to remind us that there might be hidden agendas at play. Overall, this is not the most accessible book to a casual reader, but those who persevere will be rewarded.