Hardcover - 608 pages
Price £17.99. (26 April, 2002)
Macmillan; ISBN: 0333781740
US: Paperback - 800 pages
Price: (June 2002) $18.95
Del Rey; ISBN: 0345444388
Review by John Berlyne
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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
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 was its setting
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.