This is the kind of book that makes me want to ask, How on Earth do you come up with an idea like that?

Embassytown is a human town in the middle of an alien city on an alien planet, whose raison d’etre is its embassy. Only Ambassadors, specially trained people, can communicate with the aliens – the Hosts, as the humans mostly call them.

Communication with the hosts is challenging to say the least. For them language is an opening into the speaker’s consciousness. Language that is generated by a machine or a computer is meaningless noise to them. Words have to be uttered by a sentient mind in order for the Hosts to perceive it as language.

It is impossible for the Hosts to lie, to speak about things that are not, or even to use a metaphors. Everything they say is a literal truth. In order to speak about ideas and concepts that do not exist yet, they create similes. Avice Benner Cho, the first-person narrator, was asked to participate in a staged simile when she was young, so that the Hosts could later compare various things to “the girl who was hurt and ate what was given to her”.

But they understand the concept of lying – they have learned it from humans. They find it fascinating and try to learn it themselves. They have Festivals of Lies where they listen rapturously to humans saying “this box is red” about a blue box, and compete in almost-lying – the winner is the one who comes closest to uttering an untruth.

Some humans see this development as disastrous and try to stop it. But just when it seems that we’ve arrived at the crux of the book, we’re proven wrong. Instead things turn in a completely different direction when a new Ambassador arrives from off-planet (unheard of!). Communication between humans and Hosts go badly wrong, society melts down, and soon the entire Embassytown is threatened with extinction.

I don’t want to say too much more about how the language actually works and how humans manage to communicate with the Hosts, or about what happens in the book. Miéville uncovers the big picture one little piece at a time, and does it so skilfully and with such care that running ahead of him and ripping the whole curtain down would destroy much of the magic.

It is an intellectual book, built on a single idea taken as far as it can possibly go. Language and communication and translation are the main “characters”. The actual physical human character narrating the book is secondary. The story happens in and to the world around her. She observes and occasionally participates but she is, for the most part, not central to the story.

Several reviewers complain about the lack of character development. And indeed if you follow tradition and view Avice as the protagonist, you would probably be dissatisfied with how Miéville develops her. By the end of the book I still feel like I hardly know anything about Avice. But as I said she is not the focus of the book.

Likewise there is very little in the way of descriptions or world-building. We get only a vague idea of what the Hosts look like (large, insect-like) and almost nothing about what the planet looks like, and even less about their society.

So, to me those weaknesses are not weaknesses. More problematic are some weaknesses in the idea itself, aspects of it insufficiently explained. How could an entirely literal language arise? How is it possible for them to hear and understand a lie but not repeat one? How can the Hosts stage similes if they cannot fully think of them before they have been performed? But Miéville’s execution of this idea was so exquisite, so pleasing to follow, that I didn’t want to be ungrateful. Instead I decided to go with the flow and not ask too many questions about it.

It is a weird and beautiful book – and towards the end, when things break down, a pretty violent one, too. It is confident, forceful, rich, sprung apparently fully formed from Miéville’s imagination. Reading it requires some effort but the rewards are great.

Read this review by Ursula K. Le Guin if you’re still not convinced that you should run and buy this book.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Adlibris.