The Scar, by China Mieville

the-scar-by-china-mieville coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: four and a half stars
Book Review by Bluejack

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China Mieville brought a bold and unforgiving new vision to speculative fiction with Perdido Street Station. The Scar is a sequel more in spirit than in narrative (although a few filaments of character and history do connect the two).

Bellis Coldwine is fleeing the police state of New Crobuzon in fear for her life, or at least her freedom, but she flees in despair. New Crobuzon is her home, her life. There is nothing for her out in the lesser world. New Crobuzon is some strange mix of pre-Victorian London crossed with a world of high magic, populated by monsters of every hybrid, and described as the Imperial capitol of some dystopian steampunk hell. But Bellis has exiled herself to the correlation of Australia, an isolation just barely preferable to prison.

She never makes it. The ship she is on is hijacked by pirates, and her life takes one strange turn after another as she finds herself enmeshed in an adventure she never desired, used by forces greater than her comprehension, exposed to magics she had never imagined possible.

Truly, Bellis is at sea.

Mieville does so much in The Scar that one could write an analysis longer, perhaps, than the book itself just exploring the rich interplay of theme and symbol, dissecting the dozens of fascinating characters, their motivations, their role within this immense novel. There is not one scar, but many; and the meaning of these many scars shift throughout the book. It is not until around page 440 that we even comprehend the title of the novel itself, and the ultimate goal of the pirates.

And yet, as with the very best literature, The Scar is not only deep and important, it is immensely fun to read. Mieville’s imagination delights, surprises, and horrifies at every turn. The reader cheers and groans with the many characters — each both hero and villain — as individual fortunes rise and fall.

The book is a rollicking adventure, a quest, and another gritty urban fantasy all rolled together. The pirates, we soon learn, dwell on a massive raft miles across constructed of ships chained together, upon which they have, over the course of centuries, constructed a patchwork city of wood, brick, metal, and stone. Mighty engines and ancient magics hold this together. An enormous flotilla of tugs and supporting craft tow it slowly through the sea. Here is a free nation of outcasts.

The Scar will appeal to readers who like adventure that has some meat on its bones, and some thoughts in its head. It will appeal to those who prefer beauty of language to pretty pictures. Mieville sets himself up as the nihilist heir to Gene Wolfe. This is good, important, fun stuff to read.

It is a shame that a good, important, fun book such as this would be marred by minor blemishes, but so it is: The Scar suffers a curious paucity of language. Mieville’s vocabulary is not lacking, but he has a strange tendency to overuse certain powerful words. The characters, for example, are so constantly agog, aghast, appalled, and stunned it is astonishing they can even move. Towards the end, as if the characters are all pleading with Mieville to end their misery, just about every character at some point or another (several more than once) says “This ends here.” Everything in The Scar judders, without exception. Things don’t shudder, or quiver, or shake, or jitter, or shiver. They judder every damned time. Although a mere quibble next to the absolute wonder of Mieville’s accomplishment here, I was disappointed that something this exquisite should be plagued by so banal a fault.

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