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This Census-Taker Paperback – January 3, 2017
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“China Miéville is a magician . . . who can both blow your mind with ideas as big as the universe and break your heart with language so precise and polished, it’s like he’s writing with diamonds.”—NPR
“The book haunts the reader; what actually happened seems always just out of reach, glimpsed in shadow as it rounds a corner ahead of our vision.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“[Mieville’s] been compared to Karen Russell and George Saunders, and rightfully so.”—The Huffington Post
“Lingers in the mind like an unsettling dream.”—Financial Times
“A thought-provoking fairy tale for adults . . . [This Census-Taker] resembles the narrative style, quirkiness, and plotting found in the works of Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, or Steven Millhauser.”—Booklist
“Brief and dreamlike . . . a deceptively simple story whose plot could be taken as a symbolic representation of an aspect of humanity as big as an entire society and as small as a single soul.”—Kirkus Reviews
From the Hardcover edition.
From the Inside Flap
A boy ran down a hill path screaming. This running, screaming boy has witnessed something terrible, something so awful that he cannot even properly articulate it. All he can do is run. His story is investigated, but no evidence is found to support it, and so in the end, he is sent back. Back up that hill path to the site of his terror, to live with the parent who caused it. The boy tries to escape. He flees to a gang of local children but they can't help him. The town refuses to see his danger. He is alone. Then a stranger arrives. A stranger who claims his job is to ask questions, seek truth. Who can, perhaps, offer safety. Or whose offer may be something altogether different, something safety is no part of. In This Census-Taker, multiple award-winning writer China Miville offers a story made of secrets and subtle reveals, of tragedy and bravery, of mysteries that shift when they appear to be known. It is a stunning work, full of strangeness and power. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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You can read my reviews of all ten Locus Award novella finalists on my blog, which you can find on my author page: Good Feeling: seven short stories
Bear with me on this comparison here to the works of Philip K. Dick (PKD). I once told a friend that if you started out reading Dick's The Man in the High Castle you would find a coherent, fairly traditional (and outstanding) novel. You might then proceed to read other works by Dick and I'm pretty sure you'd be totally confused (a lot of his work is undeniably confusing, non-linear, and even insane). The Man in the High Castle spoils the reader into thinking PKD's other works would be similar. This is not so.
The opposite happens, too. If you read some of PKD's oeuvre before The Man in the High Castle, you'd think all of his works are experimental, surreal, philosophical, and confusing. When you then read The Man in the High Castle, you might think as I did, "Where did THIS come from?"
And so it is with Mieville and this novella, This Census-Taker. If you've never read Mieville, don't start with this book - it will just confuse you and might keep you away from his more accessible creations. Do come back and read it after digesting several of his other works. If you have read a lot of Mieville, this will be an interesting adventure. For me, it was a literary treat that kept me spellbound.
Mind, I wouldn't compare the literature of PKD with Mieville, except in the above context. In fact, this book reminds me more of something written by John Crowley. Both Crowley and Mieville (at least in this book) create a sense of unease merely by the style of their writing.
So I see this described as a "novella" and I wonder what the definition of that means since this comes in over 200 pages. But it is a novella, at least in the sense that the story arc, even at 200 pages, is fairly limited in complexity. In the end, it doesn't really matter.
The setting of This Census-Taker is rural and small town, another deviation from Mieville's usual urban settings. The village and hills of This Census Taker are at the one end of the urban-rural spectrum. A typical Mieville work is also explicitly surreal and fantastic. There is no concrete magic or technology here. There is a bridge. There is a hole in the ground where trash is dumped. There are goats. There are street urchins. There is a murder. Maybe several? Maybe none? Nothing jumps out and grabs you as true fantasy. Yet it still comes across feeling fantastic. When it's "just" fiction.
There is a plot. There is a protagonist. There are characters. You see them through a film of traditional language that shifts subtly, often without even realizing that it is happening. Everything starts with the title: "This Census-Taker." Why not "THE Census Taker"? Why not "A Census Taker"? "Tale of the Census Taker"? Or just "Census Taker"?
In the end, no matter where you go, there you are.