on 24 April 2002
From the author who gave us the brilliant and phantasmagoric 'Perdido Street Station' comes a new work similarly brimming with wit, inventiveness and interest.
The author's use of language to paint vivid and engaging pictures is just as evident as in 'Perdido Street Station'. Sights which could be comic if handled only slightly differently hold chilling and at times repellent fascination. Mieville's ability to capture the essence of s scene, person or thing within the space of a few words is one of the things which makes 'The Scar' a truly enjoyable read.
However, it's not one for the faint hearted. The author is certainly emergining as one of the finest current exponents of weird fiction. His books blur the boundary between fantasy, SF, horror and all manner of traditional genres, giving a sense of the truly new and innovative. Like any author, there's a certain amount of hat-tipping to favourite and inspirational writers, yet the book has a freshness of idea and place which marks it out from others. The story starts off simply, with the escape of one character from the sprawl of New Crobuzon, the transporting of prisoners across the sea, acts of piracy and the amazing appearance of familiar objects (you'll know what I mean when you come to them).
All in all, if you enjoyed 'King Rat' or 'Perdido Street Station', then you'll most certainly enjoy 'The Scar'. If you've not read the authors work before, then I'd heartily recommend this and all of his novels.
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.
Given the huge success of China Mieville's second novel Perdido Street Station, a follow-up was eagerly expected, but Mieville has bucked expectation by setting The Scar in an entirely different area of Bas-Lag - as such readers hoping for a return journey to the vivid city of New Crobuzon will be disappointed, though to be fair having explored it so thoroughly already any follow-up utilising the same setting may well have suffered from diminishing returns. Instead The Scar is set almost entirely on the floating city state of Armada - a pirate city that is comprised of a mass of stolen ships lashed together, and follows the fortunes of two shanghaied inhabitants: one of whom is desperate to escape, and the other who having been rescued from a prison ship finds a haven on Armarda.
As such, The Scar is the best sort of sequel, in that it is only tangentially linked to the previous novel - in this instance the lead heroine is initially on the run from New Crobuzon because she is wrongly suspected of being involved with the Slake Moth outbreak that drove Perdido Street Station. However, while you don't therefore NEED to have read Perdido Street Station in order to enjoy The Scar, I would still recommend reading the previous volume first for one simple reason - it's slightly better.
The Scar is filled with fantastic concepts -the city of Armada itself; the leviathan avanc that the Armadan's plan to harness to their city; an island of terrifying mosquito women; and a scar in the fabric of Bas-Lag seemingly created by a crashed alien spaceship that bleeds out quantum instability, and the characters are compelling, but the crucial difference between The Scar and Perdido Street Station is the lack of narrative tension this time round. In Perdido Street Station the narrative was driven by the deadly threat of the Slake Moths, and the characters desperate attempts to contain the threat before the creatures spawned - in The Scar the threat is much more nebulous - whether it's the threat of the monstrous Grindylow hunting someone on board Armada, or the Lover's quest to drive Armarda into the Scar, the threat's are always somewhere over the horizon, and during the novels middle section the book feels rather becalmed. As with Perdido Street Station this is a brick of a novel - unlike Perdido Street Station this feels in need of a little editing.
Still - a fine book, but one it's easier to admire than love.
on 26 October 2002
China has once more returned us to the land of the wildly weird, the stuff of nightmares, the packaging around an intensely complicated plot of obsession, mystery, betrayal, and twisted desire. Set in the world of Bas-Lag that he first introduced to us in Perdido Street Station, this work shows us a much wider view, a diorama of images and creatures that at first blush seem incredibly impossible, not related to our world at all, but one quickly finds motivations and emotions that ring around both your heart and your head.
Tinges of Melville surround the overarching story of the hunt and capture of a true miles-wide Leviathan, but trying to pigeonhole China is an impossible task, as one finds elements from Bram Stroker to Dickens to Richard Burton all thoroughly churned into this mix that China makes uniquely his own. Trying to predict what will happen or what a character will do is an exercise in futility, doomed to failure as China continuously surprises you. His characters, for all their incredible physiognomy, are recognizably human, richly detailed while maintaining depths that are just out of reach.
Uther Doul is a true man of mystery, wielding his Possible Sword and twisting events (and possibilities?) for his own unknown desires, the prime mover of the events in this story. Bellis Coldwine is the main viewpoint character, in some ways equivalent to Ishmael of Moby Dick, an observer who nonetheless takes important actions that have definite influences on the final outcome; cold, distant, but yet one who gets caught in more than one love affair. The Brucolac, a real, practical vampire; Silas Fennac, the New Crobuzon spy; Tanner Sack, a Remade man who is the epitome of loyalty yet will still betray his chosen country of allegiance; each character adds their own touch of flavor and complexity to this bitter and compelling tea. And in the distance are The Lovers, erstwhile commanders of the motley collection of ships that make up the Armada, defined by their odd sexual practices, practices that leave them mirror-image scarred, a metaphor in flesh of China's thematic investigation of the cuts and scarring that happen to and are part of the definition of everyone.
China's strength is his incredibly descriptive prose, much in evidence here, but the picture he paints is not as monochromatically dark as it is Perdido Street Station, as he dips his pen with bits and swirls color, highlights poking out of his black felt. His pictures of his diverse creatures are not as detailed as they were in the earlier novel, especially not for those creatures and near-human species that not new to this book. For this reason alone, I recommend reading Perdido Street Station first, so that one comes to this book steeped in the environment, the depressive bleakness of the earlier work.
The plot is a continual set of twisting surprises and seeming diversions, but each part is fully tied to the climax of this work. In this area, this book far exceeds his earlier work, showing all the signs of meticulous planning, where each element is necessary to the story, and events are driven by the complex interaction of each of his characters, rather than mere happenstance or coincidence.
My only real complaint with this book was the Coda that is tacked on after the main climax. While this Coda neatly wraps up all the unanswered questions and provides closure to some of the splinter stories, I felt it was unnecessary and spoiled the power of the highly emotional main ending line.
With this book, I feel that China has entered the top flight of today's speculative fiction writers, mature, confident of his mastery of the art of story telling, with a voice that uniquely and compellingly his own. I predict this book will take all the various awards for this year, and I can look forward to many more years and many more great reads from this brilliant new fable spinner.
on 24 July 2013
"Scars are not injuries, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole."
The Scar lives up to its title. Everything and everyone at the core of this story is at a different stage of healing. Whether they have physical wounds, broken emotional bonds or tears in the world itself, everything will eventually leave a scar. Mieville has managed to craft a follow-up to Perdido Street Station which touches on deeper themes of loneliness and belonging. And pirates. Where Perdido Street Station was an introduction to the city of New Crobuzon, The Scar is far more wide-ranging; leaving New Crobuzon for climates new, and to places altogether much stranger than the city it leaves behind.
Bellis Coldwine is the central protagonist of The Scar. Continuing the theme of unorthodox central protagonists from Perdido Street Station, Bellis is a linguist. She's named aptly; cold, mostly humourless and consistently conflicted by her own decisions. The novel begins in New Crobuzon, but Bellis quickly leaves, believing herself to be in danger from the militia. (In a nice nod to the events of Perdido Street Station) She finds herself a job onboard a naval ship as a translator; a ship which has a cargo of more than just trade goods. But this is all just set-up for the real storyline. When Bellis' ship is taken by pirates and press-ganged into the floating city of ships known as Armada, she finds herself much further from home than she ever wished to be. And the rulers of Armada have bigger plans than anyone could possibly imagine - leading them to the greatest beast in the seas and the source of unimaginable power.
The Scar is a little shorter than Perdido Street Station, but still comes in at a hefty length. However, Mieville has managed to hone his talents between the two novels to create a book which moves along at a near perfect pace, from set-piece to set-piece. Where Perdido Street Station was a little flabby in its first quarter and to some extent in its last quarter, The Scar always moves briskly, and yet always allows the characters and setting room to breathe. On top of that, the plot is an absolute stunner - each individual part building to a huge climax and then starting all over again, but building on what's come before.
In terms of imagination, Mieville is completely unleashed here. Perdido Street Station was layered with atmosphere and some very original ideas, but The Scar just goes one step further. New Crobuzon was a living city - you could feel every layer of grime seep into you as you read it. But Armada, the main setting for The Scar, could not be more different. I've never seen anything like it before. A floating city, made up of press-ganged ships from centuries of pillage, it is an incredible idea and expertly described by Mieville - and yet never to the point of overdoing it. The setting is there to tell part of the story - it's just an incredible thing to behold on top of that.
Another area where Mieville improves on from Perdido Street Station is his cast of characters. As entertaining as they were in Perdido, only two or three had any real level of depth. The others felt like side-characters. Here, though, even the minor characters feel well-realised and important to the progression of the story. Whether it's the reMade marine engineer, Tanner Sack, the effective rulers of Armada, The Lovers or the particularly awe-inspiring Uther Doul and his possibility sword, they all feel like they could live beyond the pages.
With The Scar, China Mieville has managed to build on the success of Perdido Street Station to create a novel which expands the world of Bas-Lag and tells a much more thematically cohesive story. You could read it with no prior knowledge of Perdido Street Station quite easily - some may even recommend you do so. But I think you'd miss out on the joy of having read that foundation which Mieville built in the last book. Where Perdido Street Station was essentially a very clever monster hunt, The Scar is a tale of just that: scars. The scars of relationships old and new. The scars of flesh, memory and emotion. The scars from political, personal and social wounds created in the previous Bas-Lag novel. And the scars of the very earth itself. It's a seriously accomplished novel, and the best I've read from Mieville yet.
on 8 July 2003
Let me start by saying I am not really a reader of fantasy novels. I have never been inspired by Tolkein or the whole elves, quest, ring, giants, dragons, dwarves, good verses evil plot. I accept that Tolkein did it better than most but I just don't get it. Mieville, on the other hand, is a revelation. This is fantasy as I understand it. A believable world populated by characters who behave with all the venality and fear and occasional heroism of people in real life. An anti-hero who manages to be sympathetic in his worst moments and a heroine who would never dream of asking for the reader's sympathy stand out in a beautifully paced voyage through a world that is crying out to be filmed. This is an imagination run riot, a world which leaps off the page, every character, no matter how minor, seems real and believable. More than that Mieville breaks with convention - in the same way that Dorothy Dunnett was far more than a writer of historical fiction so Mieville can not be simply described as a fantasy writer. His books are compassionate, witty, violent and bleak at times, filled with both sacrifice and redemption. Having enjoyed Perdito Street Station I fell in love with The Scar - at once a vision of a socialist utopia and a disection of why that utopia and dreams overall may not work. A wonderful book and one that deserves more than to be hidden away in the science fiction section and ignored by those who, like myself, might previously have foolishly mocked the genre. I can not recommend this book enough.
This is the first China Mieville novel I have read. It will not be the last. If the literary world did not have its fatuous aversion to genre novels, this would be winning literary as well as science fiction awards. The scope is breathtaking, the language sublime and the ideas are woven so deeply in the text rite that they give themselves up slowly and are a delight. I loved this book read it!
on 28 July 2006
The second book after the innocuously titled "Perdido Street Station" builds upon the wonderfully leftfield creation from Britain best fantasy writer China Mielville. Insanely descriptive and awash with strange creatures fathomed from a otherworldly conscience this book is brimming full of ideas. Mielville tells the story of a pirate nation searching for a well of power found within a fabled scar, a rent in the bottom of the ocean. This is a backdrop for a myriad of subplots and twists involving politics, war and people. Motivations are mapped out and charted in rich detail that bring you into the tale and help expand the world of Bas-Lag. There are wider horizons than New Crobuzon but the echoing desire to explore that city from the first book is felt by the central character well carved out but never overshadowing the numerous other players in the tale.
Miellville never disappoints in this weighty tome and leaves one wanting to find out more about what makes this world tick and what indeed fuels his mind.
Bellis Coldwine has decided to abscond from New Crobuzon after she gets into a spot of bother. Since she is adept at learning languages, Bellis has decided to hire herself out as a translator on a New Crobuzon ship headed for the colony of Nova Esperium. But Bellis has resolutely decided not to get her hopes too high, and regards her destination with something more akin to Nova Tedium. She is determined that her escape will only last for a little time, since like Dorothy, she still believes that there is no place like home. Unlike Dorothy, Bellis is determined that she will not pick up any stragglers along the way. But she is headed for a storm, whether she likes it or not.
Like a character in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, Bellis finds herself kidnapped by pirates. Not just any pirates though, these are the denizens of Armada: not one ship, but a multitude, comprising an entire city. Bellis's fellow passengers were looking for life in a new place, and although land is a bit more difficult to claim here, those who are willing to accept their fate are allotted their own berth. The Remade (the human/slave cargo of the New Crobuzon ship Bellis was travelling on), are positively welcomed and liberated. Punished for unknown crimes, labelled as criminals by genetic and mechanical brandings, the Remade are released into the community. However, even some of these find that their shackles to New Crobuzon are not quite so easily shattered. Bellis, as her name would suggest, is quite hostile to her abductors, and yet, unlike so many other unwilling passengers, she is left to roam the streets of Armada freely. Some parts of Armada are perplexingly like home: there is still bureaucracy and red tape, nightclubs, and trendy wine bars. However, these pirates are like Robert Louis Stevenson pirates in other ways: for they are after a huge treasure - almost an 'X' marks the spot... And there is a character as immortal as Long John Silver (although not quite as jolly): Uther Doul. Though he is called 'Uther', the sword he wields is not Excalibur: it Might be so much more.
Like a scar, this novel criss-crosses many genres. I suppose it could be labelled 'Steam Punk': there are certainly quite a few steam engines in the novel, some redundant, others endlessly famished. In some respects, this is a good example of the British post-colonial science fiction novel. No other nation ever really quite ruled the waves as good old Britannia, and there is something quite eighteenth century about the New Crobuzon navy, with its officers and press ganged crew. Mieville does a Melville, although the motives for hunting the whale are not exactly the same as Ahab's (but there are a fair few cannibals/bloodsuckers on board). China Mieville skilfully bends space to even let some popular science in. Treasure Island itself proves to be a bit more bloody than usual, and Captain Nemo cannot be swayed from his dangerous quest. Mieville does not quote from other texts or even covertly allude to them, but such archetypes do spring to mind nonetheless. Armada is fashioned from the coupling of many different boats, after all, and I am sure that Mieville would agree that no writer can be truly original. Having said that, there is vibrancy in the text, a beating pulse, that China Mieville has fashioned all himself with clinical skill. This may be a science fiction novel, but it is very much a work of its times. An old naval nation that's unsure of its future direction, whose leaders are those who can spin the best lie, and whose taxes are really goring... This novel surveys the rise and fall of Communism - hidden spies abound, all kinds are people are embraced behind the Iron Curtains of the ships, but if you dare cross the wall, you may well be shot. More than just Armada revolves in The Scar (one of the main protagonists has a truly apt name). In his depiction of the Lovers, the rulers of Armada, China Mieville scratches at the pus of modern love in a most discomforting way. The nuclear family has been blown away; Romance is truly doomed in this dystopia.
It would have been nice if Mieville had presented more of what it was like for Uther to live in High Cromlech's caste society, but then Uther is meant to be inscrutable, and I am not sure that Mieville completely believes that we are the products of our environment. The Lovers and The Hanged Man seem to be Tarot symbols of fate, but Bellis strongly believes in the exertion of her free will (although perhaps she should have listened to Captain Myzovic more attentively). When you're mining for possibilities, anything can happen... The resolution of this novel will no doubt have some reader's baying for China Mieville's blood. Yet Margaret Atwood won the Booker Prize recently using similar thaumaturgy, and China Mieville's new novel is the more convincing and ship tight of the two vessels in question. If you go back over the novel, you'll see just how expertly China Mieville has laid the foundations for The Scar. Mieville is no cheat - there are no hidden cards up his sleeve - he is an expert player and only his poker face is hard to read. After he has gently settled you into the narrative in the first fifty pages, the rest of the novel makes for compulsive, addictive reading. The pages are certainly easier to turn than Armada, and nothing can stop the prose. Something akin to G-force will compel you to sit tight and see this journey through.
on 11 September 2013
China Mieville is perhaps better-known for The City and the City and Perdido Street Station, but if you read only one book of his, make it The Scar. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece of dark fantasy.
Set in the same steampunk world as Perdido Street Station, The Scar could only loosely be considered a sequel; sharing neither its setting nor any of its characters. Bellis Coldwine, the book's protagonist, begins the book fleeing the events of Perdido, unwillingly bound for New Crobuzon's colony of Nova Esperium. She is soon pressganged and brought aboard Armada, a floating pirate city comprised of hundreds of captured ships. Coldwine finds herself caught up in a web of intrigue surrounding the Armandans' plan to harness the power of the Scar, a mysterious fissure in reality.
The Scar can be a challenging book. It is lengthy, densely-written, and demands attention to the details of its richly-imagined world. Mieville has not set out to write a thriller in the vein of Perdido here. Whilst his riotous imagination is as active as ever, and there are spectacular setpieces aplenty as the plot gathers pace in The Scar's latter third, this is largely a calmer and more introspective book than its predecessor.
What makes The Scar a triumph is the strength of its characters and themes. From Silas Fennec, a manipulative agent of the New Crobuzon government, to the Lovers, the visionary, deranged leaders of Armada's most powerful faction, The Scar's principal players are a substantial and engaging cast. Their conspiracies, uneasy alliances and betrayals keep the plot moving at a fair clip, but also feel entirely authentic; the natural product of their competing interests. Our heroes here are unhappily bound together on an expedition for which few have great enthusiasm; motivated instead by self-interest or fear. In this darkest of fantasies, the alternative to despair is not heroism but hubris. The novel's genius is that it provides a gripping account of grand adventure, even as it critiques such Utopian folly.
Coldwine herself is no hero, but a self-interested and single-minded protagonist. Initially difficult to like, she is nevertheless beautifully-drawn and entirely believable. And as she feels pangs of homesickness and powerlessness in the face of the Armandans' machinations, it would take a cold-hearted reader not to end up rooting for her. The Scar's ending, too, has attracted a degree of opprobrium. Without wishing to give anything away, I will simply say that I thought it was a master stroke; a perfect conclusion to the book's exploration of the ways in which we are wounded and then made whole, however imperfectly.
In short, The Scar may not always be an easy read, but it is a hugely rewarding one. Powerful and melancholy, it takes Mieville's characteristic flare for spectacle and inventiveness, and harnesses them in the service of a rich human drama. A unique, brilliant work. Highly recommended.