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The Scar

Reviewed: May 25, 2011
By: China MiƩville
Publisher: Del Rey Books
608 pages, $10.99

The work of China Miéville occupies an odd niche in the speculative fiction universe. The literary influences he claims range rather widely through the sword & sorcery, horror, fantasy and science fiction sub-genres of the field and critics also claim to detect hints of the American Western in his work.

Sources indicate that he calls his own work “weird fiction” and that seems to describe it as well as any label. He has won the Bram Stoker Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the British Fantasy Award. He has been nominated for the big three - the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards - but hasn’t scored that hat trick yet.

His stories take place on what certainly seems to be an alien or other-dimensional world called Bas-Lag, where both science and magic seem to coexist. The former is generally referred to as “thumaturgy” and the latter is generally of the type featured in “steampunk” s.f., that is to say, science fiction with a distinctly Victorian Age feel.

Unlike Perdido Street Station, the first of his books that I reviewed here a few years ago, The Scar takes place on the oceans of Bas-Lag, with occasional stops at some of the extremely strange city states that the characters visit during their quest.

Perhaps the strangest state of all is the Armada, floating city that has been created out of thousands of ships welded and tied together and peopled by their former crews, all press ganged into service as citizens after having been captured by the roving pirate ships which serve as its scouts and supply vessels.

We meet the Armada when the small ship on which Bella Coldwine is passenger, fleeing the city of New Crobuzon after the events of Perdido Street Station, is captured by the pirates under the leadership of the enigmatic Uther Doul.

On the ship with her are Tanner Sack, a criminal whose body has been remade (surgically and magically altered) , and Johannes Tearfly, a scientist who specializes in undersea life. Bella herself is an accomplished linguist, and it is in this capacity that she finds herself of use to the Lovers, the strangely bonded pair who are the rulers of the Armada.

They have a quest, one which involves the harnessing of a semi-mythical sea beast, the avanc. This is where Bella comes in handy, as she locates and is able to translate a volume in the Armada’s huge library that tells them where to find the person who is most expert at this task. She becomes his translator when they finally locate him on the island of the deadly mosquito people.

Anxious to be able someday to return to her native city, Bella also becomes a pawn in the plots of secret agent Silas Fennec, who has been gathering intelligence for New Crobuzon. As a result of his plots there is a major sea battle with the New Crobuzon navy part way through the story. Worse, however, is the invasion of the grindylows, horrid creatures who want revenge on Fennec for stealing something from them.

Still worse, is the final destination the Lovers want to reach, the Scar of the title. It is a region of chaos, where probability and possibility break down and dimensions overlap.

This is one of those “everything including the kitchen sink” kind of novels. Miéville gives us intrigue, pirates, strange and horrible places, damaged people trying to find their way, weird creatures, vampires, romance (of a sort), a couple of mutinies, and excursions into forbidden places.

Miéville’s prose is deliberately convoluted in the manner of H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake and Gene Wolfe, who he cites among his literary influences. I found the book slow going and often set it aside for several weeks at a time, looking for brighter fare. It is dark and there is not much to lift the spirit in any of its many subplots. Still, I returned to it and finished it off in a couple of marathon sessions.

The writing style doesn’t seem to be an affectation, but rather a way of keeping the reader slightly off balance in steampunk adventure. Dan Simmons has done much the same thing with his two Victorian age novels, The Terror and Drood, which I have reviewed here.

Perhaps this is also a result of Miéville’s academic preoccupations, which include social anthropology and international relations. He certainly delights in dreaming up strange, wonderful and horrible alien creatures and settings, and showing how they would interact with each other.

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