Just over two years ago I read Miéville’s first Bas-Lag novel Perdido Street Station as part of an online discussion that died some 200 pages into the story. I finished the novel anyway and it left me with mixed feelings. Perdido Street Station is a very challenging book for someone who reads English as a second language. Miéville has a huge vocabulary and he is not afraid to use it. This in itself is not a bad thing but the lavish descriptions of New Crobuzon left me with the impression that perhaps the book was a bit overwritten. Although my to read stack includes The Scar, Iron Council and Miéville’s short story collection Looking for Jake and Other Stories, I hadn’t found the patience to attempt another of Miéville's novels until last week. In a way The Scar is every bit as rich and complex as Perdido Street Station but I found it a much easier book to get into. Perdido Street Station may have been Miéville's breakthrough, but as far as I am concerned The Scar is definitely the better book.
No longer feeling safe in her native New Crobuzon, Bellis Coldwine has accepted a post at the merchant vessel Terpsichoria as a translator. She is desperate for a way to leave the city so in order to get the job, which will eventually take her to the New Crobuzon colony of Nova Esperium, she has learnt a new language in a month. A few years hiding away in that far corner of the world ought to be enough to let things cool off in the city. Unfortunately the trip does not go as expected. During the conversations between the captain of the ship and a group of New Crobuzon allies, disturbing information surfaces. The appearance of a New Crobuzon agent forces the captain to drastically alter his plans.
To make matters worse the ship is boarded by pirates and while most of the crew and passengers are spared, the captain is killed. The pirates are part of the Armada, a vast floating city travelling the world’s oceans. This slow, cumbersome raft constructed of captured ships can only keep out of the hands of the major naval powers of the world but keeping its existence secret. Everybody is offered a place in their society but no one is allowed to leave. Bellis is stuck and she resents this fact, especially after she gets wind of a threat to New Crobuzon. Escaping to warn the city is not the only problem she faces however; the Armada’s leaders are chasing a dream of their own, one that risks the very existence of the Armada.
In Perdido Street Station we’ve gotten to know the city of New Crobuzon intimately. Miéville describes the city as warped reflection of Victorian London, infused with strange technologies and many even stranger sentient creatures. In The Scar he turns his powerful imagination outwards; the city is only mentioned, none of the action actually takes place there. For the most part we are at sea. The sea Miéville describes is no less wonderful than the city. Playing with our fear of the deep, and what might be hiding down there, he creates a spectacular array of strange animals and sentient life forms. The Armada is a society well adapted to live among such creatures. The scale, the organisation and the architecture of the city is utterly fantastic and makes for a great backdrop. I must admit I had the feeling that it would be ripped apart during the first bit of heavy weather they encountered but don’t let that bother you. The absurd or impossible are very much part of this novel.
The story itself is one that gradually reveals new layers of most of the major players in the book. Bellis has the idea she is constantly being manipulated and to an extend that is true. Especially early on in the book she is quite naive, rather surprising for someone for a metropole like New Crobuzon. She quite willingly lets herself be guided into all manner of activities that have major unintended (by Bellis at least) consequences. I thought her tendency to bemoan her own gullibility and inability to get away from the Armada were a bit too much at times. She does not seem to miss anybody in particular, just the city of New Crobuzon itself. It does not strike me to struggle quite so much against her captivity. When she does take action Bellis manages to get herself in the thick of thing though. She’s present at quite a few memorably events in the history of the Armada.
Bellis’ experiences leave her scarred, both physically and mentally. This scarring of the characters and the world is a very strong motif in the story. Very few of the characters escape it. Scars are seen as a sign of healing, a way of carrying history with you, a source of tremendous power and even an act of love. Scars are dealt with in a surprisingly positive way in the book. It’s the price of living but receiving them is not necessarily a bad thing. Why, sometimes they even create opportunities.
I felt that Miéville lost himself a bit in the vivid descriptions of various aspects of New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station. The book felt overwritten, too long for the story the author was trying to tell. The Scar is, although not much sorter, a faster paced and better balanced book. It features a good bit of spying and a great conspiracy as well as a very well realized naval battle. As the end of the novel approached Miéville had me absolutely hooked. The author unveils quite a bit about the Bas-Lag world beyond New Corbuzon and although he gets quite descriptive at times, I never had the feeling this went at the expense of the story. This book is a much better mix of action, strange world building and character development.
After reading Perdido Street Station I had my doubts about whether Miéville is a writer I would actually enjoy reading. After reading The Scar I feel like Bas-Lag is beginning to grow on me. Some of the more absurd elements in the story still made me blink at times (mosquito people?) but not nearly as much in the previous book. Perhaps my tastes are shifting a bit towards the more unusual expressions of speculative fiction. I'm looking forward to reading Iron Council, judging from the description it should be an interesting read. I might even get to it before the end of the year.
Title: The Scar
Author: China Miéville
Format: Mass market paperback
First published: 2002