The Scar, China Miéville

Del Rey, 2002, 638 pages, C$28.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-44438-8

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about China Miéville is how he manages to delight both highbrow critics and all-average readers by writing… monster books. Despite the critical acclaim, the superb prose and the strong characterization, Miéville has built his reputation on Perdido Street Station , a monster-hunt book, and followed it with The Scar… another monster-hunt book.

Granted, lumping both books in the cheap horror genre bin is disingenuous. It fails to do justice to the craft of Miéville’s writing, the wild invention of his setting, the attention paid to his characters or the touch of humour and tension he weaves into his novels. There is nothing in common between, say, Perdido Street Station and Dean R. Koontz’s Phantoms, even if both feature nightmare-sucking giant moths. Miéville’s stuff is an odd blend of horror intrigue in a fantasy setting approached as a science-fiction world. Add to that the requisite action and adventure, and you’ve got yourself a total entertainment package.

Billed as a sequel to Perdido Street Station, The Scar is more of a subsequent story set in the same universe. It begins in the aftermath of the events of the first novel, as linguist Bellis Coldwine flees the city of New Crobuzon in fear for her life. Following the unsettling events described in Perdido Street Station, friends of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin have started disappearing as government operatives start taking far too much interest in what they might know. An ex-lover of der Grimnebulin, Coldwine decides to take matters in her own hands and flee by sea to a far-away colony. But stuff happens, her ship is boarded by pirates and she finds herself shanghaied to Armada, a floating city where she is left free… but unable to get away.

There’s more. Much more. A gigantic sea creature. A race of man-sized mosquitoes. Vampires, humanoid cactaes, remade men, spies and other horrors and marvels. Much as he did with Perdido Street Station (and, presumably, King Rat), Miéville continues to stretch the definition of urban fantasy in all sorts of directions. This time, The Scar takes place mostly at sea, bringing along plenty of echoes from other nautical adventures even as it delights in describing the inner working of a very special city made out of ships loosely tied together. New Crobuzon it ain’t, but it’s certainly a neat idea. Miéville has a skilled eye for description, and if The Scar does something surprisingly well, it’s to survive the absence of New Crobuzon (perhaps the central character of Perdido Street Station) by presenting us with another creation that’s just as fascinating.

As with all good horror stories, The Scar also features its quota of fascinating moments, from descriptions of the city to ominous hints about the monster at the bottom of the tale. If you hunger for well-written fantasy that doesn’t try to lose all of its readers along the way, this is the one.

There’s also plenty of good things to say about the characters of the novel. The anchor is, of course, dry and intellectual Bellis Coldwine, who acts as a reluctant narrator to the events of the book. While a solitary person, she also comes in contact with a number of Armada’s other inhabitants, from fellow ex-New-Crobuzoners to Armada natives. Her uncanny knack for being at the right time at the right moment isn’t entirely accidental.

If the novel has an annoyance (beyond a number of lengthy passages; skip the all-italics chapters), it’s the unconventional form taken by the ending. In some way, it flinches and shies away from the objective of the quest. In others, it depends on an arbitrary authorial decision, a decision that torments even the characters as they ask “of all the chances that this could happen…” It is potentially annoying without being too much so; you can actually read it, say “huh, neat”, be satisfied by the revealed visions of what didn’t happen and avoid disappointment. Maybe Miéville has something else in mind for one of his next books. Maybe we’ll re-visit The Scar some day.

In the meantime, there’s more than enough stuff here to keep us entertained. Miéville’s talent at writing top-notch pulp fiction is just as good here than in the novel that established him as a major writer, and few will be disappointed by this follow-up. The writing is delicious, the characters are worth our interest and the narrative is packed with fascinating asides. What are you waiting for? An excuse to flee the city?

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