Monday, March 28, 2016

The Scar (2002) by China Mieville

The Scar (2002) by China Mieville: China Mieville's second novel about the steampunky, science-fantasy world of Bas-Lag marks a dramatic jump in his strengths as a story-teller. The first Bas-Lag novel was Perdido Street Station. It was a fine, dark, thrilling piece of work. But it also had pacing issues involving an exhausting, seemingly never-ending climax that occupies almost half the book's 500+ pages.

This time around, the pace ebbs and flows in a fairly expert manner. This suits the novel's tricky plot, which often resembles that of a John Le Carre novel more than it does any fantasy novel that comes to mind.

Magic and science co-exist on Bas-Lag. There are humans there, but also an awful lot of fantastic species intelligent and otherwise. We begin in the immediate aftermath of the events of Perdido Street Station, as our co-protagonist Bellis Coldwine flees the sprawling city-state of New Crobuzon by sea. However, she and the other passengers and crew of the ship she's sailing on are captured by pirates from the floating pirate-city of Armada. And it's not just a regular pirate attack: they were after someone on the ship.

Armada, a city of hundreds of thousands of people comprising thousands of ships bound together, is after something. Luckily enough for Coldwine, Armada is also quite liberal with those whom it captures: she soon has a job in the great library of Armada as befits her bibliographic and translation skills. 

Things are even better for the prisoners in the hold of the captured ship: 'Remade' with terrible biological or mechanical modifications as punishment for various crimes, they too are now free. Tanner Sack comes from this group of prisoners, and becomes our other co-protagonist (or other prime narrative focalizer, if you prefer). 

And then things start to pop. Armada seeks something deep in the sea. But the politics of Armada are complicated. Coldwine's translation skills will soon come into play, as will Sack's Remade underwater abilities. We'll meet a host of other characters with radically different agendas. We'll get a mysterious mercenary swordsman, a pragmatic vampire king, and a horrifying race of human mosquitoes. And that's just in the first half of the novel.

Mieville's characterization is top-notch throughout. The plot is twisty and clever with reversals and mistaken assumptions. The city of Armada is fascinating, as are the goals of its nominal leaders, known only as The Lovers. There's thrilling, horrifying action involving naval battles. There are monsters whose goals are not as obvious as they seem. And there's a left-wing social consciousness at work throughout, an evaluation of the cost that the plans of the mighty have on those below them on the Class Pyramid. 

There's also a slight modulation of Mieville's often dazzlingly weird diction at work, a few less moments when one worries that Mieville may choke on that thesaurus. The result is something much more organic in its diction than Perdido Street Station. In all, this is quite a performance by Mieville, a witty work of epic science-fantasy with a moving emotional quality to it. Highly recommended.

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