Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Scar

Spoilers abound.

I borrowed this book aware of what to expect from China Mieville. I didn’t hope for sympathetic characters or a happy ending and I expected a great deal of bodily fluids. I skimmed a bit at the start, but enjoyed the second part of the book very much – to the point where I plan to buy a copy. The imagination in this book is superb.

The story is told mostly from the point of view of Bellis Coldwine, a character as appealing as her name sounds. A passenger on a ship that’s captured by pirates, she’s press-ganged into working for Armada, a magnificent floating pirate city made from hundreds of ships lashed or bridged or chained together.

Armada alone would have been worth reading this book for, because Mieville goes all-out to make it as realistic and vivid and original as possible. It’s circled by small tugboats and ironclads, guarded from below by menfish and crays and a dolphin, watched from above by airships. It has several rulers – the strange scarred Lovers, the vampiric Brucolac, the council that in true council fashion doesn’t accomplish much – and so far it has simply made occasional raids and gone nowhere in particular.

So far. Then Armada steals a floating rig that belongs to New Crobuzon and Bellis soon learns what’s behind this. The Lovers plan to travel through the Endless Ocean to reach the distant Scar, which is a place of infinite possibilities.

What happens after that, no one knows. Possibly not even Mieville. Because the book isn’t really about the Scar – that’s the MacGuffin. The book is about the journey, not the destination. And although I thought of plot coupons – especially in the scene where Armada raises a storm to attract elementals to draw up an avanc to harness to the city so they can cross the Endless Ocean to find the Scar – the simple fact is that Mieville’s worldbuilding is great enough to overcome this.

It’s also good enough to compensate for the fact that few if any of the characters are likeable. I honestly couldn’t stand any of them except Tanner Sack. Well, maybe the Brucolac too. He had a certain appeal. I have to say, after books where the vampires are all as gorgeous as they are protective of humans, it was a refreshing change to read about a vampire with a serpentine tongue who imposed a blood tax on the people in his territory.

Many of the other characters are repulsive (intentionally, I’m sure), and Uther Doul was just a bit too Superman for me – nothing, not even a three-hundred-year-old vampire, could take him down. But it wasn’t about the characterization any more than it was about the plot.

It was about all the wonderfully alien races of Bas-Lag. If you liked the ones in Perdido Street Station, you’ll enjoy these too. There are scabmettlers whose shed blood hardens instantly into armor, anophelii which survived the Malarial Queendom, and the vampir. Best of all, there’s a wonderful scene where Mieville describes exactly how a man is Remade into an amphibian.

It’s about the battles at the end, when warships of the New Crobuzon navy catch up to Armada. Mieville plays with point of view and tense here, shifting from past to present, but the battle itself was so gripping that I barely noticed the transitions. It’s fought in the air and on the ships and below the water, fought with flintlocks and rivebows and magic. And even that is superseded by the next battle, where the Brucolac and his ab-dead cadre run rampant through the ships, slaughtering people as they try to force the Lovers to turn back from their suicide run to the Scar.

The book’s conclusion would have to be pretty good to outdo battles like that, and unfortunately, it isn’t. The book doesn’t end with a bang - it’s more of a decrescendo trail-off similar to that in Perdido Street Station - so perhaps it was a good thing that I wasn’t caught up in the fates of any of the characters. Armada itself – and the teeming, unique races of Bas-Lag – were more than enough to keep me as hooked as the avanc.


GunnerJ said...

It sounds like Mieville, all right: overwhelming in worldbuilding and description, underwhelming in plot and character. But the one thing that I admired most in Perdido Street Station was his use of moral and political themes: it's rare in fantasy that a union organizing a strike as protest makes a plot point, and Yargarek's crime and attempt at atonement or recovery had real emotional force (but it would have much more if it wasn't buried under "hunt the monster" bullshit). New Crobuzon is a pretty clear analogy for the USA, so I wonder if any of those political or moral themes got explored in The Scar? It doesn't sound like it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marian,

I tried reading, "Perdito Street Station". It sounded so fantastic. But, unfortunately, I couldn't get through the Baroque language.

Did you find this work more accessible?

Marian said...

I have to admit, politics is not my forte. It's odd, but when I think about creating a new race, it's like looking into a unlimited vista of possibilities. When I think about devising a political system, it's like flipping a coin, (choose either some form or monarchy or some form of democracy). Only it's not as easy.

I don't recall much of the politics in The Scar, though I liked the fact that the different ridings of Armada had different styles of rulership. Shaddler, for instance, had a general at its head, while Curhouse was a democracy and Dry Fall was a despotism. They even had their own newspapers - that's one detail of the politics of Perdido Street Station that I do remember.

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

I have to admit, I skimmed quite a bit at the start, and I had to look up the word "mephitic". But I found it relatively easy to understand. There are probably a lot of nautical terms that I didn't understand but mentally skipped over.

Still, with no khepri main character, the word "chymical" doesn't show up too often. And thankfully, the characters don't use the exclamations "Jabber!", "Godspit!" and "'Stail!" as often here either.

What annoyed me about the language (you're right about it being baroque) was that Mieville goes out of the way to make some descriptions as repulsive as possible. For instance, the anophelii are humanoid mosquitoes. Of course they're not going to be pretty. But Mieville specifically states that the males of that species have mouths that look exactly like anuses.

So each time a male anophelus appeared in the story or was mentioned in the story, I had that unpleasant image in my mind. Heck, I still have it. Not happy about that.