census taker“A boy ran down a hill path screaming.”

China Miéville is a name that still doesn’t trip off enough tongues, as far as I’m concerned, but the reviews on his latest book all but sum up how those in the know do feel about him. He’s been called “one of our most important writers”, “incomparable” and “ambitious”, and even the great Ursula K Le Guin refers to him as “brilliant”. This is my third venture into his works, after The City and the City and Kraken, and while, yes, it is my least favourite of the three, it nonetheless is till full of magic and oddness that makes it hugely endearing. So let’s cover the plot.

Set in a poor town in the misty mountains of an otherwise undisclosed location, a boy runs from his house further up the hill down into the town by the bridge, screaming that he’s just seen something terrible. The villagers try and help him, but when the boy’s father tells them that it’s all been a misunderstanding, But the boy is sure that he saw his father kill his mother. Left alone on the hill with only his increasingly deranged father, he is trapped and finds no one will listen to him; that is, until the census-taker comes to visit.

It’s a short book, and the plot is fairly simple. Not a lot happens but, this being Miéville, there’s still a lot going on, and far more that never gets explained. We don’t get many answers to the questions we have and little is revealed that isn’t absolutely necessary. We don’t know where the story is set, the age or name of the protagonist (only two characters actually get names at all) and it’s unclear whether something magical is happening or not. These are not necessarily complaints – they make you want to keep reading.

The boy’s father is a key maker, but there’s a suggestion that this is something supernatural. People ask him for what they want, and he makes a key that helps them get it. Maybe they need wealth, or they need to escape, but they can do this with whatever key the father makes for them. Is this to be taken literally? Is there magic afoot here, or is it the misunderstandings of a small boy? We’ll never know.

It isn’t my favourite of Miéville’s books, but it’s a good starter novel for anyone who wants to read him but is daunted by his larger tomes. Dip in and find yourself caught up in his weird and wonderful style.