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The Scar
China Miéville
Tor paperbcak £7.99

review by Amy Harlib

Here's another review to add to the chorus of kudos about the latest work of British writer China Miéville, whose second work of fantastic fiction, Perdido Street Station, or what he prefers to call 'weird fiction', won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke and British Fantasy Awards in 2001 plus a Hugo nomination among others. Thus he quickly entered the top ranks of the speculative literature genre community. This type of acclaim for a sophomore effort, a tough act to follow, offered a challenge well met by Miéville's third novel, The Scar, a companion volume making only oblique references to but independent from its predecessor. Equally wonderful if not even better than Perdido street Station, The Scar, though set on the same invented otherworld of Bas-Lag, takes place in entirely different environs than the preceding book's multifarious metropolis of New Crobuzon, and it explores far more territory and contains many darker and more disturbingly suspenseful overtones, being no less enthralling for all that.
   The Scar opens with the linguist/translator protagonist Bellis Coldwine, whose diary-like observations in the form of undelivered letters get liberally sprinkled throughout the text, fleeing recent, life-threatening upheavals in New Crobuzon to seek sanctuary and anonymity across the ocean in the Nova Esperium colony. Bellis' sea-going voyage gets aborted by pirates who capture her and her shipmates, dragooning them into becoming more or less willing inhabitants of the Armada, the raiders' vast home-base, a floating city pulled by numerous tugs and constructed from the hulls of seemingly countless generations of commandeered vessels. Like most places in this world, the Armada's population consists of a reasonably live-and-let-live, polyglot, multi-racial and multi-species melange of sentient humanoid beings, this specific locale distinguished by its significant number of liberated Remades, those unfortunates who ran afoul of the law and in punishment, have had their bodies unpleasantly altered by surgery and/or cybernetics.
   Ruling this outlaw commune-of-sorts, we find the Lovers, an oddly seductive, sadomasochistic couple with audaciously esoteric plans involving the eponymous Scar, a far-distant place rumoured to be an inter-dimensional, reality-mutating rift where the forces of probability may be manipulated. Helping them as chief aid in achieving their grandiose goal, the Lovers employ the formidable warrior Uther Doul, armored with artefacts from the fabled, vanished, nonhuman Ghosthead Empire. On board opposition to the Lovers' scheme comes from the Brucolac, leader of a coterie of vampires and the wild card, mysterious master of espionage, Silas Fennec, spying for New Crobuzon. Powering the Armada flotilla's progress, a plundered New Crobuzon drilling rig extracts from the seabed, its oil-like rockmilk fuel, a source of prodigious thaumaturgic energy in this continuum where scientific sorcery mingles with 'steampunk' technology in a manner Miéville makes surprisingly plausible.
   The embittered lonely, ambivalent Bellis, reluctantly employed librarian for the Armada, finds her skills needed by the Lovers in order to interpret the language written in a book containing instructions about how to harness the uncanny avanc, an immense leviathan-like creature with the strength to tow the seagoing city to its remote destination at a pace and efficiency far exceeding the mundane tugs. Subsequently, the coerced Bellis encounters many far more willing and eager residents of her new home, a colourful, eccentric crew including two other major characters (besides the personages already mentioned previously) - Tanner Sack, a freed Remade prisoner glad to join the pirates and Tanner Sack's friend, the youthful, clownish yet innocent cabin boy Shekel, in love with Angevine, a Remade woman living long-term with the Armadans.
   These voyagers experience many wondrous set-pieces, most notably involving: Salkrikator, the submerged city of the crustacean-like Scabmettlers, sapient beings off-times allying with the Armada; the island of the insectoid Annophelii mosquito people, a folk suffering a lethal form of gender division with docile, cerebral, vegetarian men and voracious, blood-sucking, predatory, fearsome women, exemplars of the dangers of extreme sexual enmity; the workings of thaumaturgic science itself, a fascinating blend of mysticism with the mechanistic; the cruelty surrounding the exploitation of the avanc reflecting the harshness of the Lovers' attitudes; the sentient, animate, plant-like Cactacae, elite Armadan guards; Silas Fennec's secret, illegally acquired, empowering devices, operating in a fashion worthy of Clark Ashton Smith or H.P. Lovecraft; and the enigmatic, shadowy, ocean-dwelling sapient creatures utterly without mercy who stealthily stalk the Armada to play their hand at a crucial climactic moment.
   The Scar, with its meandering, episodic voyage at the centre of its plot, reflects reality in a way very few works of the fantastic do. Embodying Miéville's intent to revitalise the fantasy/SF genres, the story dynamically ranges from panoramic spectacles to intimate, dimensionally developed character interactions - whether human or nonhuman, all beings having a mix of likable and unappealing traits. Brimming with nautical adventure, The Scar's main plot, combined with sub-plots concerning hidden agendas, all leading up to an awesome sea battle and its telling aftermath, thoroughly engulfs the reader with unpredictable turns, stunning imagery and ideas, and mordant irony. The protagonist, Bellis Coldwine, prickly and often disagreeable, nevertheless engages because she is so believable, as are so many of her compatriots with their many-layered personalities. Also adding stimulating depth to this epic yarn are subtexts riffing off the meaning of the title, with constant references to wounds and healing and what the experience of same means in life - for no one metaphorically goes through this book unscathed, yet, as in everyday life, each individual emerges changed in different, unexpected ways.
   Awash in complex, exotic, vivid settings and personalities inevitably worthy of comparison with classic genre works by Mervyn Peake and Jack Vance and giants of literature like Dickens and Melville, The Scar with its thrilling blend of horrific darkness, ingenious invention, clever concepts and thoughtful, deeper meaning, deserves to win an array of awards for it ranks among the best genre novels of the year and maybe for all time. Set sail with the Armada and get swept away on a memorable reading voyage sure to make innovative waves in the sea of fantasy, science fiction and those avant-garde tales that are just plain weird and wondrous.
The Scar by China Mieville

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