by China Miéville
Review by John Berlyne
Del Rey / Random House Trade ISBN/ITEM#: 0330392905
Date: 7/1/2002 List Price 19.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Also see the China Miéville Interview.
There is surely no other genre title to be released this year on either side of the Atlantic that is more eagerly awaited than The Scar. China Miéville's rise has been nothing short of meteoric, and deservedly so. His debut novel was King Rat a dark and forbidding retelling of the Pied Piper myth set against the seething urban landscape of modern day London. This grimy and gritty backdrop, steeped in the sights, sounds and smells of the city's dark underbelly showed us the kinds of places Miéville wants his readers to visit. Though King Rat got our attention, few could have predicted the impact made on both industry insiders and general readership alike of his next novel Perdido Street Station.
The energy and narrative drive of Perdido Street Station has amazed readers all over the world. Compared by many to Mervin Peak's Gormanghast, it is equally as much of a masterpiece, and since publication has scooped the major awards in the UK and a World Fantasy Award nomination to boot. That it didn't win was a surprise, though the idea that at some point Miéville will not add this statuette to his collection is inconceivable. After only two novels, this is a writer to whom the rest of the field is now being compared.
Perdido Street Station is a hard act to follow to say the least. Indeed, having written such an extraordinary work, Miéville must feel an intense pressure to produce something that compares, but doesn't repeat. Something that shows Perdido... was more than a fluke or a flash in the pan. It is a measure of Miéville's talent that with The Scar, he has managed to do just that.
One of the most impressive elements of Perdido Street Station was its setting - the sprawling post-industrial revolution landscape of New Crobuzon. A city as dark and brooding as can be, where twisted spires mark the skyline and towering chimney stacks vomit gouts of black smoke into a brooding sky. This is very much a Dickensian metropolis, inhabited by an assortment of races, each one struggling to survive in this age of steam driven machines. The level of invention that went into creating New Crobuzon is quite staggering, the city rendered almost as a living, breathing - but by no means benevolent - thing. That Miéville spent a great deal of time in creating and imagining this place is evident. One might think that having put this work in, he would be tempted to milk the place for all it was worth, but this is a writer who seems untouched (indeed untouchable) by the confines and protocols of the genre. Someone, quite literally, in a class all of his own.
Anyone who has read of New Crobuzon would love to spend more time there, to experience its dark wonders book after book, but rather than pander to these desires of ours, Miéville, clearly a writer with a compulsion to surprise and with a need to continue to push at the boundaries of the genre, takes a great risk with The Scar - for this is a story of pirates and of the sea, one which leaves New Crobuzon far behind for other places on this invented world of Bas-Lag.
The Scar opens with Bellis Coldwine fleeing New Crobuzon following the events that took place in Perdido Street Station. An acquaintance of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, she fears the authorities investigating the Slake Moth affair will soon come looking for her. In an effort to escape them, she takes working passage on the Terpsichoria, a transport ship bound for the far off colony of Nova Esperium where she intends to make a new life. A skilled linguist, Coldwine's job is to act as interpreter for the ship's Captain in the places they will visit during their long voyage. Life on board is not too uncomfortable, but this ship is more than a simple trading vessel. Much of their cargo is alive - criminals and outcasts bound for the other side of the world. New Crobuzon, like Britain of old, transporting its unwanted trash out of sight and therefore out of mind. Their presence and treatment aboard the ship makes Bellis extremely uncomfortable - she feels no less of a prisoner. Below decks, remade convict Tanner Sack sits miserably awaiting his own new life in the colonies. He passes the time by telling stories to Shekel, the cabin boy he befriends.
Only a week into their voyage, the Terpsichoria makes an unscheduled diversion. Explained only as "government business" by the officious Captain, the ship overshoots its intended destination to check on three of New Crobuzon's rockmilk (think North Sea Oil) platforms - huge structures that suck this precious resource from the seabed. They find one of them is missing!
Soon enough they resume their course and dock at Salkrikaltor, the city of the Craymen - an enchanting Miévilleian submarine invention. Bellis is called upon to perform her task of interpreter in the various trading negotiations. With these completed, the Captain presses the Craymen authorities on the missing rig. They respond professing ignorance of how something so large and so near their territory could simply vanish - then they drop a bombshell. A man joins them and hands the Captain a scroll telling him that his ship is commandeered and must return immediately to New Crobuzon. More "government business". The Captain is outraged but compelled to comply. It quickly becomes clear that this fellow, Silas Fennec, is very much a man of mystery. Though polite to Bellis, he is tight-lipped about his mission. However, before the Terpsichoria can make much headway back home, pirates waylay her and Bellis's life is turned upside down.
As you can appreciate, The Scar is an extremely hard novel to summarize. Physically it is, like Perdido Street Station, a huge book, but it is the seemingly boundless scope of Miéville's imagination that is impossible to encapsulate, rather than simple number of pages.
Though The Scar incorporates many of the themes and ideas that lay behind Perdido Street Station, it is a very different kind of book. The work has a far more literary feel to it, a gravitas if you like. The energy behind the writing is just as fierce, but seems to resonate at a baser, more elemental level. As such, it seems a more refined novel, less about plot fireworks and fast paced chases through dark and moody streets than it is about the people of the story, how they feel. Using his characters, Miéville tends to philosophize more on the things that fascinate him, on the nature of loss and betrayal, on displacement, on his love of language and the power of books, on the concept of empire and its vulnerabilities, on a socialist ideal and, of course, on the idea of the city.
This is not to say there are no fireworks in The Scar. There are some truly exciting set pieces but there are also rare times when the novel becomes becalmed and seems to drift a little. Somehow though, these elements are necessary, allowing us to catch our breath and wonder at the panoramic views of almost excruciating beauty that the novel offers. The fantastical, magical elements of the story are certainly more amorphous than those of Perdido Street Station. Miéville brings much more into play the myths and legends that pervade his invented world of Bas-Lag and the result is this heavier feel to the book that I described earlier.
The Scar then is another satisfying and engrossing insight into the imagination of this extraordinary writer and serves to disprove the notion that lightening doesn't strike twice in the same place. It seems Miéville's place amongst the truly great giants of the genre is no longer open to question.