This book is as great on a second read-through as it is on a first. The most impressive thing is the setting and the language, both of which are things that Mieville has mastered in his prior works. The plot and characters are also quite interesting.
About halfway through the book, it slows down. It feels like the characters are running around and only a few major things are happening from time to time. They are still fun chapters and although I sometimes wish that they had been trimmed a bit, it's possible the story and characters may have loosed some of the detail and richness by doing so. By the end, though, you are glad you read the book and even those slow chapters take on new meanings.
The first part of the book, Proem, deals with events that happened in the childhood/adolescence of the main character. Lots of world-building happens here. By that I mean, that the universe is described and lots of information is given. It's not an info-dump as it's not just boring descriptions and a lot of mysteries remain to be revealed throughout the book. This is honestly my favorite part of the book, and on this second read-through it was even better as I knew the importance of several of the events described there.
The next few parts set up the main plot line in a somewhat unusual fashion. Chapters shift back and forth between 'latterday' and 'formerly'. Latterday tells of the events immediately following the prologue and deal with the arrival of the impossible Ambassador and subsequent events. At the time, you have no idea why the Ambadassor is impossible, though. Formerly is set in the past and deals with the events following the Proem. Through those chapters you learn of Language, the Hosts, the Festival of Lies, and the structure of Embassytown which leads to the events of the prologue and the subsequent problems that arise.
The final parts feel normal in comparison since you no longer have the shifting timescapes. Unfortunately, like on my first read-through, I found the beginning of this to be a bit slow. Perhaps it's that you got used to the dual tension in the formerly/latterday setup or that the novel has to build up towards the final conclusion. Still, everything ties together and you see how things back in Proem or formerly are relevant to the present latterday. This is a really clever way to tell a story and, to my knowledge, not commonly used in genre fiction. It means the reader has to work a bit harder to understand the story, but you get a whole extra experience with it.
The book is told in first person view of the main character Avice Benner Cho and is her recollection of events. It actually feels somewhat like a conversation. Sometimes she will relating some event then stop and think about something such-and-such character said a few months afterwards before going back to what was going on originally. These time jumps can be a bit jarring, but is a way to bring greater insight to the story and to reveal her personality and the way her mind works.
Avice isn't the only character, you also have a couple of Ambassadors such as EzRa, who is key to the development of the story. EzRa is completely different from other Ambassadors like CalVin or MagDa and we get to learn more about it. There's also a prominent automaton (robot), Ehrsul, whose actions are surprisingly human when compared to the some of the real humans out there. Some Hosts, like Spanish Dancer and Surl tesh-echer (or more accurately, ) are also pretty central to the story. I wish I could find some good drawings of the Hosts, but I can't find anything that fits the mental image I have. They truly are monstrous in appearance.
Avice's age, as with other characters, is generally told through subjective kilohours. Every planet has its own separate year so an age in years is pretty much meaningless. If you travel to a separate planet or undergo relativistic effects (hence subjective hours, since it's what you experienced), this becomes even more problematic or confusing. For example, she leaves Embassytown when she's 7 years old, and returns when she's 11 with a husband (after her 4th marriage). That sounds a bit odd, but she later says the same thing in kilohours: she left when she was about 170Kh. An Earth year is just under 8.8Kh so this amounts to about 19 Earth-years old, not a surprising age at all. An Ariekene year is about 2.8 or 2.9 Earth-years. You get subtle (and not so subtle) reminders about the different timescales with phrases like: "It was the third sixteenth of September, a Dominday" or "the second monthling of December."
Setting / World Building
The setting and world-building is where this book really shines. There is so much detail in this universe that it's difficult to write it all here. Also, the reveals and descriptions are top-notch so I don't want to spoil anything major by relating it here. I've already mentioned the time keeping techniques in the Characters section above. There's plenty of neologisms, or new words, that Mieville uses (as with his other works), but all work very well at immersing (pun INtended, see below) you in the story.
The majority of the story takes place in the world of Arieka where the Ariekei, or as their more commonly known, the Hosts, live. Humans were allowed to build a settlement there, which they named Embassytown. The Hosts are truly alien, not only in their physical appearance, but in their Language. In fact, the Language, its mysteries and intricacies, forms one of the main drivers for the story. What makes Language so interesting, is unfortunately a spoiler; you will have to read and find out on your own.
The immer plays a subtle role throughout the book, though it's not the centerpiece (that would be Language). However, it is so interesting that I hope Mieville writes more books in this universe to explore the immer further. This is the medium by which spaceships travel quickly to other places. It is Mieville's take on hyperspace. When one enters the immer, one is said to immerse (the opposite is to emerge); and immersers are those who operate the ship while in the immer. The immer is sometimes referred to as the always, while the physical world is the manchmal (German for sometimes) given the nature and history of the universe.
There are also creatures or entities in the immer (immerlings), and we get to see one early in the story. Mieville's description of it and it's emergence is beautifully poetic:
Taxonomy is imprecise. Most experts agree what emerged on that day was a minor manifestation, one I’d later learn to call a stichling. It was an insinuation at first, composing itself of angles and shadows. It accreted itself from its surrounds, manifesting in the transient. The bricks, plastone and concrete of buildings, the energy of the cages and the flesh of the captive animals from the gardens spilled toward and into the swimming thing, against physics. They substanced it. Houses were unroofed as their slates dripped sideways into a presence growing every moment more physical, more suited to this realness. - from Embassytown by China Mieville
This is probably my favorite China Mieville book thus far (though The City & The City and The Scar come close). It's an amazing science fiction tale with some truly awesome innovations. If you've read this far into my review you'll notice that I still haven't said what this book is about. It is very difficult to answer that since many topics are covered and each individual reader may come home with a different take on the story. I personally enjoyed the immer and Language, but you may prefer the politics or the god-drug.
It is, simply put, a work of art and if I were to tell you the story it would spoil it. If you must, though, here is renown author Ursula K Le Guin's take on Embassytown in which she describes it as "a fully achieved work of art." I sincerely hope the Hugo voters will give the nod to this amazing book and look forward to Railsea, China Mieville's next novel.
UPDATE: September 4, 2012
I've created a short, 1-video review/summary of Embassytown. You can watch it here: