The Scar was the first novel China Mieville wrote while being known as a major figure in the world of speculative fiction and with the expectations that come along with such praise.
Perdido Street Station at times achieved a brilliance born of vivid imagination that felt like a wake up call to the genre. Mieville picked up the 2001 British Fantasy Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel, and speculative fiction had a new must read author.
The Scar was released with great anticipation, and although it perhaps didn’t achieve quite the same level of acclaim as its predecessor, it was still among the strongest novels released that year and did nothing to diminish Mieville’s new rock star-like stature in the genre as his return to the setting of Bas-Lag takes readers away from the now familiar urban New Crobuzon setting that other authors would have felt compelled to exploit in the immediate sequel.
It’s also in my mind the better novel.
Instead, Mieville takes the readers to the high seas of the Swollen Ocean bringing New Crobuzon with us only in in the spirit of numerous characters and along with its ideals. The Scar was not ignored, being recognized once again, claiming the British Fantasy Award and Locus Fantasy Award for top novel of the year honors.
Much of The Scar takes place on the sea and as exhibited in Perdido Street Station, Mieville has few (if any) peers in descriptive language and no one can bring scenery to life like Mieville’s panoramic prose:
At the edges of the world the salt water is cold enough to burn. Huge slabs of frozen sea mimic the land, and break and crash and reform, crisscrossed with tunnels, the homes of frost crabs, philosophers with shells of living ice.
Rude creatures emit slimes and phosphorescence and move with flickerings of unclear limbs. The logic of their forms derive from nightmares.
Anyone who has read any of Mieville’s work must agree his prologues are riddled with such examples of writing and often times offer more flourishes of wonder than the body of other full length novels.
We start The Scar being introduced to Bellis Coldwine; a woman with some skill with language who has left New Crobuzon via ship taking passage to a new colony, Nova Esperium.
She goes with great earnest but not of great personal desire as Bellis is not so much as going somewhere as she is leaving New Crobuzon. Bellis is fleeing her home to escape the Gestapo-like clandestine actions that have befallen close and even not so close associates of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, of Perdido Street Station fame.
On the same ship we meet other players in the novel, a remade captive Tanner Sack, a cabin boy Sheckel, and scientist Johannes. Bellis’ hopes are dashed as the captain of their ship alerts the crew and tells them they must go back to New Crobuzon, obviously due to a matter of great import and with them they have a new passenger, a well traveled man who goes by Silas.
It can be said with some truth that Mieville takes too much time in the first portions of the novel but it starts picking up as the ship is captured by well-organized pirates leaving the Captain and the first officer, unceremoniously, or perhaps rather ceremoniously, executed.
The survivors are taken and introduced to a setting one can only reasonably expect from the imagination of Mieville – a floating mobile city, a conglomeration of interconnected, captured, or beached ships. Armada.
All are accepted here and welcome to make Armada their home. Mieville displays the meaning of such a place from many different viewpoints and does so throughout the novel in many different circumstances.
Armada offers a wealth of incredible denizens to fuel the storyline and is broken into several districts, and rulers of two of these districts are classic Mieville creations.
The Brucolac, a vampire, whose inclusions drives the horror aspect Mieville always has within his novels and the Lovers, the ruling power in Armada who have curious sexual habits.
There is another. however, who steals the book. The man seen behind the Lovers most often, their guard, and yet at times seemingly guide, one Uther Doul.
Uther Doul did not seem to live in the same time as anyone else. He seemed like some visitor to a world much more gross and sluggish than his own. Despite the bulk of his body he moved with such speed that even gravity seemed to operate more quickly for him.
Uther Doul, a peerless fighter who speaks with the words of a philosopher is a character that will be an instant fan favorite. Even without his weapon, the possibility blade, borne of an ancient yet advanced alien technology, he is unstoppable, but with it…well I can’t ruin those parts for you.
The Lovers have a plan to make Armada more mobile and take it to place beyond imagination (well except Mieville’s) in a search for the Scar. They seek to gain control of a semi-mythical leviathan, an Avanc, a creature of such huge proportions, when first depicted in a science journal Bellis found in the book, its presentation was reminiscent of a comic I remember from Farside, of a great eye looking up out of the water, its circumference larger than the boat above it.
On this journey to the very end of the world, to a destination where reality intertwines with possibility, The Armada will be invaded twice. Once by New Crobuzon forces and again by a yet another almost mythical race.
Mieville depicting some of the action:
Bellis watches, breathing hard, unmoving. Everywhere else the fighting is ugly: contingent and chaotic and stupid. She is aghast Doul can make it beautiful.
Besides the invasions, we will find out the secret of Silas, a New Crobuzon super-spy; be introduced to a land where a race of mosquito people dwell, an attempted coup by vampires, and in doing so through Mieville’s vivid prose we will find out the different and numerous definitions that can be taken on by the simple concept of one’s Home.
We will bear witness to reasons why bonds like camaraderie, love, and friendship, are just levers to be used against both unexpected and expecting minds, and this in itself is a comfort due to prolonged familiarity. As usual, all of the characters are more than they seem, yet combine being harshly believable and fantastic.
The Scar is bound together by a series of letters, or what in effect is one long journal as Bellis is writing at first it seems for someone, but in the end for herself and ultimately the reader, and offers cohesion through Mieville’s baroque storytelling, as he takes us to one breathtaking scene to another.
As I mentioned before a reader will have to practice some patience with the beginning of The Scar, and that is the only fault I see in the novel. I simply don’t give any credence to some who condemn a novel on the notion that there is not a character they can come to care for within the pages of The Scar.
This is often misconstrued by some, as meaning as poorly written characters, when it really just means that particular individual has a need to place some sentimental value on a redeemable character’s sufferings. In any case, I thought Sheckel provided this at least in some measure. During the middle portions of The Scar takes off and doesn’t look back, reaching heights at times that simply cannot be found in works by other current authors.
The Scar is not a perfect novel but one reside within in. Captivating landscapes, truly original characters and creatures – most notable Doul, Silas, The Lovers – all rendered to us in Mieville’s nonpareil prose. It sticks with you. It sustains after your reading
A literary scar.