PS Publishing / 89 pages / December 2002
Usually, a reviewer can introduce readers to an author by saying, “____’s style is somewhat like ____’s. It’s an easy description, readers get an immediate idea of where the fiction lies, and it pads the review about by a few words. Some authors defy that kind of familiar comparison; no one writes like Jonathan Lethem or Caitlín Kiernan. Can you really say China Miéville is “like” anyone else? That’s one of the things that has earned him such an appreciative audience in his relatively brief career.
A novella such as The Tain is only going to add new loyalists to Miéville’s cause. Bleak, chilling, and incredibly complex, it is a story to keep your mind working on the subject matter for a long time. It may even change the way you look at yourself and the world around you. That’s important fiction.
Sholl, the hazy character leading off the story, is a refugee in a war-torn London. This ongoing devastation is not the easily understood Blitz of the second World War, though. The enemy here is like nothing the humans have ever faced, yet is as familiar as, say, the lines in one’s palm. And if there is a way to fight back against the invaders, no one has found it yet. The good and bad people of Old Blighty are on their way to extinction.
Miéville’s choice of boogeymen is unexpected and unnervingly apt. Not content to leave readers shaking their heads over a vision of London as a ghost town, he forces us, instead, to examine our own behaviour, to wonder if we somehow brought this upon ourselves, to realise that we just never even gave this possible enemy a serious thought. That is the most terrifying conclusion of all.
Now, it is up to Sholl, no one’s idea of a conquering hero, to find a solution that will salvage a seemingly hopeless situation. He knows what he must do, but precisely what is anybody’s guess. And never forget for an instant that Sholl is far from the only variable in this incalculable disaster. What of the enemy? What is it that will truly satisfy them? There is no ready answer to that.
Be prepared to walk a dark and unexplored path with The Tain. Time and again, your perceptions will be shattered and reshaped from the jagged pieces. Expect anything, but know you will not be prepared, regardless.
And as acclaimed author and critic M. John Harrison suggests, DO NOT read the introduction before you plunge into the story. Save it for later when you are still shaking your head.