The Scar is the second instalment in China Miéville’s critically acclaimed Bas Lag series of novels. Firmly establishing Miéville’s status as one of the most accomplished if also the most bizarre fantasy writers going around, or maybe even ever, The Scar is a pirate adventure, a picture of a culture’s triumphs and defeats, the struggles of strange characters and a story unlike any other.
The basic plot sees a ship load of citizens of New Crobuzon (the setting of the previous Bas Lag novel, Perdido Street Station) including prisoners sentenced to exile, hijacked by a murderous pirate vessel and forced to live, as free citizens, on the bizarre city of Armada. Armada is a conglomeration of ships and boats lashed together, a floating port of pirates endlessly sailing. This new setting is just as strange and fantastical a place as New Crobuzon – but just as any other city, it has its slums and its high streets, its ordinary workers, its law enforcement and its rulers. It is how these two sides of the ordinary and the fantasy come together that make Armada and New Crobuzon such intriguing settings.
The story is told for the most part through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine, a linguist and captured citizen who wants nothing more to get back to her home city despite the fact she was fleeing it in the first place. As an accomplished translator, Bellis finds herself caught up in the diplomacy and ruling of Armada learning secrets and awful truths and getting involved with strange relationships with some of Armada’s most powerful people.
The remainder of the story is told through the eyes of Tanner Sack, one of the sentenced prisoners from the hijacked New Crobuzon ship – a Remade man (Remaking is a type of punishment where organic and or mechanical attachments are added to a person’s body) who has himself further altered into an amphibious being and whole heartedly welcomes his new, free life in the pirate city.
The plot moves through several directions as Armada’s rulers steer their flotilla into different quests, none of which form a single plot trajectory but all moving towards the city’s and its citizen’s ultimate fate. Ultimately, this is a novel about belonging to a city, living a loyalty to a place and how the lives of citizens and even the physicality of the city itself is all too easily at the mercy of the whims of the rulers.
The Scar is a stand alone story as far as plot goes. There are allusions to events from Perdido Street Station that have little to do with the main story. Bas Lag, however is such a strange world and completely unlike any other fantasy setting it would be difficult for the reader to get a true sense of the setting, the races and a lot of other weird concepts without having first read Perdido Street Station.
It is this type of weird fantasy that gives The Scar, like other Miéville books, the edge over so much ordinary and mundane work currently circulating in the genre. That said, having suffered a glut of vampire stories in recent years, the presence of a vampire character, The Brucolac, does risk turning a few contemporary fantasy enthusiasts away. However, as the book was published in 2002 together with the extraordinary levels of imagination evident in the rest of the book, The Brucolac is a forgivable vampire presence. And let’s face it, this is Miéville – if he’s going to write a vampire character, be assured it will be a damn cool one.
Before this review goes looking at the weaker elements of the novel, I’ll state that I adored Perdido Street Station and could very hardly fault it. As such, I come to each new Miéville read looking for that same level of captivation and awe and I just didn’t find it in The Scar.
I found with The Scar that once the novelty had worn off being back in Bas Lag and seeing what new and weird things I was going to be reading about, the plot and the characterisation just didn’t particularly thrill me. It kept me reading, yes. It kept me wondering where it was going to move to next. It was impossible to know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. And there are some astonishingly cool and downright genius fantasy and science-fiction type concepts at play here. But there was just something lacking that prevented this from being an awe inspiring read.
Apart from Tanner Sack, I felt as though I wasn’t really given an opportunity to either sympathise or empathise with any of the characters. Even Bellis, the main character, was always at a distance. Sure, she is an aloof and very confused woman, but this distance shouldn’t be held from the reader when we’re talking primary protagonists. Others will and do disagree with me on all of these issues, so perhaps it’s just that I’m not that into pirate stories or nautical type tales and it was my own distance that kept me from the characters. The Scar, after all, did win the 2002 British Fantasy Award and was nominated for the Arthur C Clarke in the same year, so really, when we’re talking weaknesses, we’re talking slight. The prose in itself is flawless and I’m continuously blown away by Miéville’s almost uncanny ability to wrangle often the most simplest of words into new and confronting directions.
Even with its perceived weaknesses (that may just be a matter of personal taste), The Scar is another example of what can be achieved when the limits of a genre, especially one so overblown with cliché, can be stretched and transformed into something completely new and different. A must read for fans of the fantasy genre, pirate adventure fans, and fans of good writing in general.