The Scar by China Mieville (2002) 795 p.
I read Perdido Street Station in 2009 and gave it what you might call a “conditional thumbs up.” It was a first novel, after all. The biggest problems it suffered from were sluggish pacing and purple prose, but it presented an interesting enough world that it was still worth my time.
I was hoping that The Scar would have addressed these issues, but it hasn’t, really. Mieville still likes to slather up the page with excessive description (particularly with characters’ thoughts) and the book is less than a hundred pages shorter than Perdido Street Station. To its credit, it does get the story started much faster, but then it slows down dramatically towards the end. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse.
The novel opens with the main character, Bellis Coldwine, fleeing her home city of New Crobuzon after being wanted for questioning by the dictatorial government. Her ship is attacked by pirates and taken to a floating city called Armada, which is comprised of hundreds of ships lashed together, and which is travelling towards some unknown destination. Bellis is treated well, assimilated into Armada’s society and given a job, but is told that the “press-ganged” can never leave the city. The prisoners aboard her own ship gladly enter Armadan life, but she is less enthused, in a city that is more equal yet less free than New Crobuzon.
The Scar is a clever thing, a seafaring adventure that takes us to new locales (unlike Perdido Street Station, which took place entirely within New Crobuzon) while still giving Mieville room for his true passion: a city to construct, explore, and bring to life. Armada is arguably a rip-off of Neal Stephenson’s floating city in Snow Crash, but it doesn’t take a genius to come up with the idea, and it’s what you do with it that counts. Armada is just as fascinating and well-developed as New Crobuzon, and by the end of the book it feels like a living, breathing city.
I think what I enjoyed most about The Scar was that it takes place elsewhere, injects a bit of variety, shows us more of the intriguing world of Bas-Lag than just New Crobuzon. We visit Salkrikaltor, the half-submerged city of the crays, and the island of the mosquito-people (one of the highlights of the book), and hear about plenty more simply from the stories and backgrounds of all the disparate people who have been drawn together on Armada. Mieville is excellent at world-building, and slips details in here and there, never just telling the reader things outright. This makes for a deeper and more fascinating fantasy world than authors who treat their novels like encyclopedias. Bas-Lag is certainly one of the most original fantasy worlds in contemporary literature, and even if Mieville was a truly awful writer (which he isn’t, not by a long shot) he’d still have my respect for breaking free of the Tolkien tradition and doing something interesting.
The characters of The Scar, unfortunately, are not a sympathetic bunch, but rather a motley collection of whiny bitches and cockney idiots. The character I ended up liking the most – and even this is a stretch – was the vampire lord Brucolac, one of the rulers of Armada, whose role in the story is similar to that of Moby-Dick‘s Starbuck. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) I recall Perdido Street Station having much more likeable characters.
The other thing that irked me, which was also a problem in his first book, is Mieville’s habit of telling rather than showing – particularly when it comes to characters and dialogue. Some of the conversations in this book are so littered with adverbs and excessive emotion that, were they translated to stage, they would be a textbook example of bad acting and hammy melodrama.
I found myself wondering why this bothered me so much, along with his florid prose, given that it’s par for the course in most fantasy. I resolved that it’s because in most other respects Mieville is an above-average writer. His books are much better than typical hack fantasy, but occasionally you can see through the cracks in the veneer, and it’s disconcerting.
Overall, was The Scar better than Perdido Street Station? Marginally, yes. Once again, the sheer creative genius of Mieville’s world is enough to outweigh the flaws in his writing, and I’ll read some more of his books down the track.