Sunday, April 12, 2015

Book Review: The Scar by China Mieville

I had read this previously, but always remembered it as one of my favorite Mieville books. On a second read it didn't disappoint, though I realized there were a lot of things I didn't remember about the book, including the ending! While it is frequently described as the second novel in the Bas-Lag universe, it is important to realize that it does not require reading the prior novel (Perdido Street Station) as it is not a strict sequel.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
This is an enjoyable dark novel revolving around exile and a journey driven by greed and ambition. Mieville is known for weaving together multiple genres together and this is no exception: pirates, vampires, magic, monsters, oceonology, and more all coexist in a story that defies easy classification. The characters are real and gritty and, while there are parts were the action slows down, in general the plot moves steadily on to unravel the mystery of the Scar. This is a Bas-Lag novel, one of several that Mieville has written, so the universe is the same and we see similar creatures and places as in other novels.

This is one of the few novels where I've created a 1-minute review. You can watch that here:

Like many of Mieville's books, the plot meanders a bit and its not clear from the beginning what the final goal is. An advantage of this, however, is that you feel as if you are exploring the world together with the characters. The main characters are on a mysterious journey out of New Crobuzon until they are captured by the floating pirate city of Armada. There they are press-ganged and only slowly do we see them working out the clues as to what exactly Armada is aiming for. The story picks up pace as the characters start taking actions against or in favor of Armada's goals. Even then, there are still surprises as more and more mysteries are revealed.

We see the world primarily through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine, a woman fleeing from New Crobuzon. She is reluctant to leave, but is forced by mysterious circumstances that are revealed as the story progresses. Her skills as a linguist play well into Mieville's fascination into language (though certainly not as obvious as in Embassytown). She's a pretty well-rounded character in the sense that while her skills at language are frequently useful, she isn't particularly strong or clever to stand out as a 'hero'. She feels like an ordinary person trying to make sense of what's going on around her.

In addition to Bellis, we have several important secondary characters including Simon Fench, Johannes Tearfly, Shekel, and Tanner Sack, who all end up in a similar situation as Bellis but with very different outlooks. We also have some of the Armadans as prominent secondary characters such as the Lovers, the vampir Brucolac, and Uther Doul. None of the characters are particularly heroic, but all are ambitious and give the story a gritty feel.

Setting / World Building
This is a novel set in the world of Bas-Lag, first introduced in Perdido Street Station. While the prior novel focused heavily on one of the major cities- New Crobuzon, this one explores the seas around it and some of the other prominent cultures. There are several non-human races in this world, such as the cactacae, scabmettlers, and the khepri. Some of these were introduced and described in the prior novel. Here we see for the first time the anophelii, horrific mosquito-people.

One of the major aspects of this novel, however, is the exploration of other nations past empires of Bas-Lag. We hear about The Gengris and their grindylow creatures and about the city of the dead, High Cromlech. We also learn about some ancient and extinct empires, such as the anophelii Malarial Queendom and the otherworldly Ghosthead Empire. The later is particularly noteworthy as a character happens to have some valuable Ghosthead relics. I wonder if Mieville will ever do a novel focusing on the times of the Ghosthead Empire and the Contumancy that brought it down?

Bas-Lag is a world of monsters and horrors. Some, like the Remade, are people who have parts, either organic or mechanical, grafted onto their bodies. One of the more horrific scenes in the novel describes one character who undergoes the Remaking process. But there are also more "natural" monsters out there, like the vampires who rule one of the ridings, or sectors, of Armada, or the avanc, an enormous undersea creature from another plane of existence. The world that Mieville presents is magical, but with dark undertones all throughout it.

Final Thoughts
The Scar remains one of my favorite China Mieville novels, likely due to the grand scope it presents as it delves into the ancient history of Bas-Lag. The characters are plot are interesting as well. On its own, it's a good novel in the Bas-Lag universe, though I think Perdido Street Station introduces that world a bit better. I really should read Iron Council, since it is Mieville's third novel set in Bas-Lag. In the end, I can highly recommend The Scar, but warn that the plot can meander a bit at first and, as with many of Mieville's books, he has a penchant for flowery language from time to time that can be hard for the uninitiated.

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