My relationship with China Mieville's work is somewhat complicated. I detested Kraken with every fibre of my being, because it was an excellent idea poorly executed. Despite that, I still read the first of his Bas-Lag novels, Perdido Street Station, which I enjoyed much more, even though I still believed it had many of the same infuriating faults of Kraken and Mieville still rather struck me as someone I might want to punch. One of the things I did like about Perdido Street Station, however, was New Crobuzon, the huge, corrupt city state in which the station lies, and I wanted to explore it further. So I bought The Scar.
Which turned out not to be set in New Crobuzon at all.
Fortunately, it doesn't matter. I thoroughly enjoyed The Scar anyway.
The only real link to Perdido Street Station in The Scar is Bellis Coldwine, the lead character. A gifted linguist who works as a translator, she is apparently suspected of being somehow guilty by association in connection with some of the events of Perdido Street Station, and has been forced to flee New Crobuzon as a result on a ship that carries voluntary passengers hoping to make a new life for themselves, as well as convicts to be used as slave labour. Midway through the journey, the ship is attacked by pirates, and the surviving passengers, crew and slaves are taken to live in Armada, a floating city of countless plundered ships. Reluctantly trapped in a city she will never call home, Bellis becomes embroiled in a complex plan by the mysterious, disfigured Lovers, who largely rule Armada, to tap into the potential of 'The Scar', a fragile flaw in reality which could provide them with limitless power.
Armada itself is an outlandish creation, but nevertheless Mieville mostly manages not to show off about it. The characters too are considerably less punchable than the principal players of Perdido Street Station. We also get to learn a little more about the 'Re-made' - the criminals who have been magically and medically modified as a punishment in New Crobuzon. The Re-made are not the pariahs in Armada that they are in New Crobuzon, and it's small wonder that Tanner Sack, tentacles grafted to his chest, immediately becomes fiercely loyal to his new home. Uther Doul, the Lovers' bodyguard whose chilling charisma could be Bellis' downfall, is a brilliant creation, as are the anophelii, a race of grotesque mosquito-people confined to a barren island. I also enjoyed Silas Fennec, the duplicitous spy. This time around, Mieville has managed to create characters who are fascinating but not self-consciously so, and The Scar is a better novel than Perdido Street Station because of it. Bellis herself, from whose point of view the bulk of the story is told, is a cool-headed, analytical rationalist, and I note that some readers feel that this makes her too cold, too sterile, to lead a novel. I disagree: I found her entirely credible, and the ache of homesickness she feels for New Crobuzon is something with which I could certainly empathise all too strongly.
The Scar is a big novel full of big ideas and grand concepts. I still feel that it could have been a good 150 pages shorter, but that aside, this is definitely one worth getting stuck into - when it comes to Mieville, perhaps I'm finally starting to see what all the fuss is about.