Sunday, March 18, 2012

Review of "The Scar" by China Mieville


A knock-out punch on the 21st century fantasy scene, Mieville had some big expectations to live up to following the success of Perdido Street StationThe Scar does not disappoint.  The fresh perspective, the imagination, and the social commentary in Bas-Lag have all been taken to the next level.   Where Perdido aimed at setting, plot, wordplay, The Scar takes the same elements and more evenly balances them across theme and character, producing another quality fantasy novel for the times.
Like Perdido, The Scar tells the story of a variety of characters.  Stage time, however, sees itself returning more often than not to Bellis Coldwine, a linguist by trade, and Tanner Sack, a Remade prisoner.  The beginning of the novel finds the two sharing a transport across the sea, the former in capacity of translator to the captain, and the latter part of the prisoner cargo being delivered.  In the wake of unforeseen events, the lives and expectations of Bellis and Tanner are quickly turned upside down, the characters finding themselves the latest pressganged into living on a massive floating city known as Armada.  The ugliest, motliest collection of battleships, stolen cargo boats, tugs, and clippers ever found in fiction, Armada is the libertarian dream of every pirate. 
What New Crobuzon is to Perdido, Armada is to The Scar.  Seeming to love every stroke, every letter, every grotesque word, Mieville goes into a similar level of detail in describing the massive floating city.  This time around, however, he seems to have relaxed a little.  Instead of wadding description, fistfuls of thesaurus at a time, onto the narrative, his style is more comfortable.  Words are chosen carefully to convey deeper meaning but in a paucity of number, rendering the novel a less gnarled, smoother read. 
There are readers who have complained about the ending of The Scar, claiming it’s either weak or anti-climactic.  However, such is the maturity – and daring - of Mieville’s sophomore novel.  The joy in the journey, the novel’s ending more than fits the events preceding it.  Many readers of the second half of Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle (Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind) likewise complain of the soft manner in which she finished the books.  But must every fantasy novel have a blood-and-guts clash of titans to finish it off?  Like Le Guin, Mieville should be lauded for the mature fashion in which his conflict is resolved through rational rather than explosive or macabre means.  Readers lauded the manner in which Mieville broke the mold with Perdido Street Station, why not be gratified by the atypical note on which The Scar ends? 
Further comparisons are needed.  Though not wooden, Isaac’s portrayal in Perdido was nevertheless inconsistently human.  Yes, he got angry when Motley kidnapped his girlfriend, but his chasing of slake-moths around the city was never properly motivated.  His moral indifference killing creatures while studying the mechanisms of flight did not match the profound sense of moral urgency he felt saving the world from those terrors of the sky.  In The Scar, on the other hand, Bellis, Tanner, and most of the other characters are more consistently rendered as living, breathing humans.  Background and character insight are related properly in motivating his “heroes”.  Bellis not an especially amiable person, the fact that readers dislike her rather than feel no emotion at all indicates Mieville is doing something right.  Not all protagonists can be altruistic saviors defending honor - a fact the author thankfully relishes in.
Mieville has been quoted as saying: “I think that all science fiction or fantasy has inevitably allegorical aspects, but I also think it's important not to suggest that that's what the book is ‘about’: you have to give the fantastic permission to be its own end, to follow its own dynamic.” Nothing could exemplify this more than The Scar.  For readers who prefer the supernatural, the monsters, and the creativity of what fantasy is on the surface, then it is all there on the page, one claw, huge eyeball, and squid creature at a time.  One original idea after another, the cray-men, avancs, and new varieties of the Remade add to the species of Bas-Lag. 
For those who prefer to see their characters and story grounded in concepts more fundamental, Mieville likewise offers a mature look at the themes of possibility, separation, cultural stance, and acceptance.  The titular theme is not an idea Mieville approaches from a single line of attack.  One of the characters can be quoted as saying “A scar is healing.  After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”.  Following this single line of thematic reasoning would have Mieville stepping in the footprints of countless previous writers, and so it is when learning of Armada’s leaders, a couple who scar themselves anew daily to symbolize their love, that another dimension is added.  And there are two other major fashions in which Mieville explores the theme.  Thus, in addition to being an appropriate title, the novel also represents itself well in the world of literary fantasy.
In the end, The Scar finds Mieville exploring new territory as a writer while expanding his familiar world of Bas-Lag in plausible, visceral fashion.  Unique imagination and thematic output on strong display, readers of both literary and genre fantasy will find something to like about the novel.  Certainly one of the voices the beginning of 21st century fantasy will be remembered for, the novel comes highly recommended.  (A word of advice: though Perdido Street Station need not be read before, it would certainly serve as an excellent introduction to the world of The Scar.)

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