Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Perdido Street Station is a supersaturated story. The city of New Crobuzon teems with life as weird as China Miéville can imagine it—and he has a very flexible imagination. This is one of those touched cities so often the focus of a fantasy or science fiction novel: the city where anything can—and does—happen, sometimes with shocking regularity. In New Crobuzon, there's the law enforced by the militia, and then there's the law observed by everyone who isn't important enough for the militia to bother. There are probably more exceptions than rules.
We figure out those rules, and exceptions, as the story progresses. Many reviewers pan the complexity of Peridido Street Station, accusing Miéville of creating something so dense and haphazardly interconnected as to appear frustratingly random. It's an understandable charge. However, that alone is not a sufficient strike against the book. And I think it's a mistake to attempt to absorb everything that happens in a single reading—this a book that withstands multiple readings precisely because there is so much to it.
Of course, before one even considers re-reading a book, one must read it once. So any book so complex as to invite multiple readings should be comprehensible in the first reading, right? Again, I think it's a bad idea to go into Perdido Street Station with the expectation of comprehending every part of the plot and how it all fits together. Nevertheless, you can comprehend enough of the plots and their connections to enjoy a full story. It helps if you look at the novel from a particular perspective, which is what I'll do for the rest of this review.
At the risk of sounding reductionist, I'll look at how alliances relate the various plots of Perdido Street Station. This is an apt choice, because one of the book's themes is about the somewhat unfortunate necessity of betrayal. Our protagonists are not the most savoury of moral characters; Isaac regularly deals with criminals and engages in petty thievery. By watching the shifting alliances among the characters of the book, we get a sense of their morality, their goals, and how they affect the overall plot. Trace the flow of power, and you'll see how that power affects the story.
Isaac makes and breaks several alliances in the book, most notably with Yagharek, Lemuel Pigeon, the Weaver, and the Construct Council. His alliance with Yagharek drags the exiled garuda into the main adventure and also provides the impetus Isaac needs to invent his crisis engine. Lemuel Pigeon is Isaac's link to the underworld of New Crobuzon; it's his involvement that results in Isaac raising the slake-moth that frees its fellows and begins a reign of terror over the city. The Weaver is an ineffable entity that can literally alter reality to suit its perception of the "worldweb" of patterns. Both Isaac and Mayor Rudgutter seek the help of the Weaver, but Isaac is more successful in forging a lasting alliance, and the Weaver's participation at the climax is crucial to Isaac's plan to destroy the slake-moths. Finally, Isaac's alliance with the Construct Council is one of the most interesting alliances in the book. At first it seems like a miracle: a nascent artificial intelligence, immune to the slake-moths' hypnosis, willing to help because it wants to preserve the city as a fount of information. Yet Isaac perceives a hunger in the Construct Council that is unbridled by morality or empathy, and so he has to use the Council and cast it aside at the last moment.
Isaac's betrayal of the Construct Council is but one of many betrayals of the alliances he makes. We're conditioned to see betrayal as something vile, but often Isaac's betrayals take the form of what he sees as necessary moral decisions. The Construct Council is one such betrayal, but it's even more explicit in how Isaac breaks his contract with Yagharek. After learning about Yagharek's crime, we see Isaac try to rationalize continuing to help Yagharek. He's caught between betraying a comrade who helped save the city and save his lover or sanctioning what, in Isaac's mind, he can only call rape. This may seem like an easy decision in the abstract, but Isaac's hesitation reveals the depth of his character, for he is human—and thus fallible.
This makes Isaac a strong protagonist, especially considering all that Miéville inflicts upon him, especially considering that he gets no happy ending. It's the harshness of the ending that causes Perdido Street Station to crystallize into a single, coherent entity. After finishing the book, I couldn't see it with a happy ending. I wish Lin had survived; I wish there was a happy-ever-after, with Isaac making lots of money and somehow enjoying his life again. But it couldn't happen. Isaac can't be the Hero of New Crobuzon, because he's not a hero. He never will be; he's too flawed. Moreover, there are no heroes in New Crobuzon. Isaac lost everything in his battle to save his city, including the life he could lead in that city, and the woman he loved.
I do regret what happens to Lin. She begins as a powerful character, just as important and as interesting as Isaac. After Mr. Motley captures her, however, her role is reduced to next to nothing. Again, in terms of alliances, Isaac and Lin's is important. They establish each other as meaningful, thoughtful characters who can see past their own species when it comes to love. They contrast each other in terms of science and art, obsession and passion, etc. Isaac would be a much weaker character without Lin, and the story itself is weaker for her absence for much of it.
On the other side of the power divide, we have the city of New Crobuzon, its government personified by Mayor Rudgutter and Secretary Stem-Fulcher. They make a shady alliance with crime lord Mr. Motley, resulting in the sale to Motley of the slake-moths—they are as much responsible for the subsequent tragedy as Isaac is. They also try to stop the slake-moths, albeit without any success. We're not supposed to like Rudgutter, of course, but we can admire him as a character, as a depiction of a corrupt city bureaucrat. We don't get a full exploration of Rudgutter's machinations, unfortunately. We do learn that New Crobuzon has an embassy of Hell, and Rudgutter seeks demonic aid in destroying the slake-moths. This part seemed more extraneous than anything else, as the ambassador from Hell neither deigns to help Rudgutter nor has any other effect on the plot. With Hell struck off the list, Rudgutter turns to other potential allies, some even less savoury.
There's almost as many creatures and species in New Crobuzon as there are streets, and it seems that the less conventional they are, the more we see them. Take, for example, the Cactacae. Living cacti? Weird! And wonderful! Much like the plot structure, it can be hard to follow the plethora of physical permutations Miéville explores in Perdido Street Station, but it's rewarding. One advantage of Miéville's voluminous verbosity is that he always chooses the most interesting words to describe physical appearance. Perdido Street Station is a delectable book in terms of diction and vocabulary.
Whether you condemn or celebrate Miéville's worldbuilding, it's clear that the city of New Crobuzon is not your typical science fiction or fantasy setting (even if it does have zeppelins from another world). It's the details that matter, and not just the amount of detail. I focused on only a sliver of the thoughts and emotions Perdido Street Station evokes for me. There's so much to consider, when it comes to the motivations of the characters and the consequences of their actions, that Miéville deserves credit for his storytelling as much as for his worldbuilding, if not more.