Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book review: The Scar, by China Mieville


The Scar is the second book set in China Mieville’s enormous and species-diverse world of Bas-Lag, and while it might help for readers to be familiar with its predecessor Perdido Street Station, it's not strictly necessary, as this is not strictly a sequel. It's enough to know that as the story opens our protagonist, linguist Bellis Coldwine, is fleeing her beloved city of New Crobuzan (the setting for PSS) in fear for her life. Unfortunately, Bellis has a tangential connection to the awful events that make up the narrative of PSS, and her friends and acquaintances have started disappearing in the resulting government investigation. Determined not to meet the same fate, Bellis hastily books passage working as a translator on the Terpsichoria, a ship bound for the distant colony of Nova Esperium. There she hopes to wait out the trouble, and eventually return home.

As her journey gets underway, Bellis – chilly by nature and in mourning for her lost life – remains aloof from her fellow passengers, though she acerbically records shipboard goings-on in a long, journal-like letter she means to send back to New Crobuzon at her first chance. Growing restless in the long, dull days at sea, Bellis finally strikes up a guarded friendship with Johannes Tearfly, a naturalist and fellow academic whose primary interests are in “megafauna” and exotic underwater life. She also grows curious about the hold full of "Remade" prisoners, intended to be used as labor in the new colony. (The Remade are the lowest class in New Crobuzan: usually criminals, whose punishment includes the forcible addition or alteration of body parts. These might be organic – beaks, claws, feathers, tentacles, extra human bits; or mechanical – legs replaced by steam-engine powered treads, arms replaced with tools useful in factories. The punishment generally fits the crime in some perverse way, and the possibilities are endless. In a world occupied by a multiplicity of "xenian" races, the Remade are among Mieville's darkest and most fascinating creations. But I digress.)

It's not long before Bellis is pressed into earning her passage, serving as translator in highly volatile and secret talks with New Crobuzon allies the Cray, who seem to have misplaced something large, top-secret and essential to government interests. There is clearly more going on aboard the Terpsichoria than meets the eye. When Silas Fennec, a mysterious passenger with enough clout to commandeer the ship, announces they must return to New Crobuzon immediately, Bellis is both alarmed and relieved.

And then pirates attack. Really. Just when the novel is building up a good head of espionage steam . . . pirates? Please don't let the narrative hard-left throw you – there will be many more – because now the action really begins.

Led by the mysterious and deadly swordsman Uther Doul, the pirates board the Terpsichoria and summarily execute the officers and most of the crew. The passengers, cargo and ship are then claimed for the legendary floating pirate city of Armada. (Another of Mieville's better conceits, Armada is a fully-functioning city-state, built from an endless array of ships captured over centuries, intricately refitted and lashed together. It is quite literally legendary, since the pirates of Armada leave nothing behind when they attack, and no one taken to their city has ever been allowed to leave.) The press-ganged Bellis understands her chances of getting home are now next to none.

But Bellis finds that Armada is not the lawless place she imagined: all the passengers, including the newly-freed Remade, are offered jobs and places to live. The political climate, while contentious, is relatively stable and egalitarian, consisting of several independent “ridings” in loose confederation, all overseen by a pair of mysterious leaders called The Lovers. In spite of her despair, Bellis begins working as a librarian in Armada's huge pilfered collection, and quietly getting to know her new home. But when a strange and important manuscript is discovered in the library, Bellis draws the uncomfortable attention of both Silas Fennec and Uther Doul – who serves as right hand to The Lovers. Drawn into their political machinations, her fate becomes inexorably bound with that of Armada itself.

I have given short shrift to some important aspects of this book – for example the moving subplot of Remade prisoner Tanner Sack, who finds his freedom and a modicum of redemption in his new maritime home; or the fascinating Uther Doul and his deadly quantum magic-fueled “Possibility Sword.” But to say any more (and there is so much more!) would be to deprive potential readers of the pleasure of discovering the myriad of strange beings and weird twists The Scar delivers before reaching its stunning climax.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about The Scar – a novel drawing on traditions as varied as the sea-shanty and “big-fish” yarn, political thriller, quantum theory and existential horror, and influences as disparate as Lovecraft, Borges and Melville – is that all the twists, turns and wildly complex narrative threads actually add up to something truly satisfying. Mieville not only builds a world so real you can see (and possibly smell) it when you close your eyes, he also sticks the landing like a gold medalist. The more China Mieville I read, the more in awe of his disturbing and fruitful mind I become. At this moment, I’m convinced The Scar is his best work – though I have no doubt he’ll surprise me again.

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