Thursday, January 20, 2011

So...about China Mieville's The Scar

Back in December I reviewed Perdido Street Station, the first book by China Miéville that I'd read, and the first of three he's written so far about an imaginary world called Bas-Lag. Even if you didn't read my PSS review, you'd know I enjoyed it since I bought another Miéville book; but the question is, how did this one stack up against that one? Well, I'm happy to report I'm already on to the third Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council, and I plan to buy Kraken when it comes out in paperback this March.

Until then, here's a bit more about The Scar, just enough to get you interested in it without spoiling anything important.

Bellis, by Trabbold
The protagonist is Bellis Coldwine, a woman mentioned just once in passing in PSS (None of the characters from that novel appear in this one). Bellis has been forced to flee New Crobuzon even though she wasn't involved in the events of PSS, just because of her connection to someone who was involved. You know how the militia can be. ;-/ Bellis books passage on a ship carrying a few other free travelers and a hold full of "Remade" criminals whose bodies have been warped by science and magic and who are now destined for a life of slavery in the foreign land of Nova Esperium. One of these Remade is a man by the name of Tanner Sack. We never learn what his crime was, but he seems like a nice guy; and whatever he did, it surely wasn't enough to deserve having a pair of tentacles grafted to his chest.

Tanner, by AgarthanGuide
Anyway, it's no spoiler to tell you the ship never reaches Nova Esperium. It's commandeered by pirates; and Bellis, Tanner and all most of the rest are pressganged into joining Armada, a giant (no, really, a giant) floating city made up of thousands of roped-together vessels which has apparently been drifting around the ocean for almost as many years as it has ships.

For Bellis, being shanghaied is a disaster; she loves New Crobuzon and hoped to return one day after the furor died down. For Tanner, it's the best thing that ever happened to him. He's free in Armada, a full citizen with just as much respect and opportunity as anyone else. He even finds a way to make his Remaking work for him instead of against him.

Standoffish and self-controlled as Bellis appears to be, she still longs for companionship and a conspirator as she tries to escape. This brings her into contact with a number of decent and not-so-decent individuals. Then there's the mysterious letter she writes in secret, recounting all the events that happen to her in the course of her journey. I sympathized very deeply with Bellis throughout the novel, and what happened when she finally revealed the letter's recipient was the most poignant moment of the whole story for me. When you read The Scar, if you read it, notice what the revelation says about Bellis herself. Then imagine how she must feel at the response of the person she reveals it to, especially after she offers to let this person read the letter. Miéville really underplayed this scene, but I got it. I could see myself doing just the same as Bellis, and I knew how I'd react if I got that response.

There are other important characters in The Scar besides Bellis and Tanner, but I wasn't able to find satisfying pictures of most of them. There's Silas Fennec, a  charming spy; Uther Doul, the warrior-philosopher who'd kill you as soon as look at you; Shekel, the cabin boy befriended by Tanner Sack; the Brucolac, the leading vampire of Armada; and the Lovers who run the whole thing. I found a good picture of the Lovers, at least. As you can see, their faces are scarred in mirror image, and Miéville teases you for a good long while before revealing their origin. I won't steal his thunder. ;-)

You might notice that while I've taken a lot of time to describe the main players of The Scar, I've hardly said a word about the plot. There's a reason for that. Trust me, you don't want to be spoiled too much before you read this novel, because there are so many occasions where you think you finally understand what it's all about, only to discover you've climbed a single step up a staircase that spirals out of sight. When the staircase finally ends, though, you might find yourself where you never expected to be, considering all that had gone before. I was certainly surprised, and I say this as someone who figured Yagharek's crime the moment he first hinted about it in Perdido Street Station.

Beyond that, I'll just say that I was pleased with The Scar. Very pleased. ;-)

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