After China Mieville's critically acclaimed sophomore effort, the magnificent 'Perdido Street Station', it would be understandable if his third novel didn't quite manage to live up to such lofty expectations. Mieville however, has dismissed all concerns with his absolutely stunning new novel, 'The Scar'. Neither fantasy or science fiction, but a organic hybrid of both, 'The Scar' assures Mieville's place in the forefront of fantastic fiction.
Bellis Coldwine was once of an acquaintance of the scientist Isaac Dan Der Grimnibulin. Isaac played a central role in the dark and fatal events which plagued the city of New Crobuzon in the previous novel. Now the powers that be are 'interested' in everyone he was close to and people of interest are never seen again. Bellis is forced to flee the city she loves - if only for a few years. We join her as she begins her ocean voyage to a fledgling Crobuzoner colony to live quietly until she can safely return home. Events take an unexpected turn when her ship is boarded by pirates, and its passengers are forced into service on the pirate city known only as 'Armada' - a city built together from thousands of ships, a city that slowly journeys across the waters of Bas-Lag.
Armada is a city of mysteries more than anything. Here, the class structure of New Crobuzon is unheard of. The remade, criminals who have been punished by gruesome surgical 'justice', live as equals to everyone else. The city is essentially ruled by a mysterious scarred couple known only as 'The Lovers', and is awash with rumors of great endeavours, whispers of which Bellis soon begins to uncover. There's something in the water under Armada, something viciously guarded, and it's only the first in a series of secrets which will take Bellis across the known world - and into the unknown as well.
In 'Perdido Street Station' Mieville proved he was one of the genre's most inventive and capable world builders. The darkly gothic world of Bas-Lag was brought to a screaming life with hosts of strange creatures, grisly technologies, and etheral locales - all tied together with prose evocative of the finest literature.
In 'The Scar', Mieville takes the world he created and expands it drastically, almost building it anew. The world of Bas-Lag is a fascinating one, and was only touched upon in the previous book. This time around, 'The Scar' takes the reader to dizzying heights of imagination, places that 'Perdido Street Station' only mentioned in passing if at all.
Here are worlds and creatures so alien that every encounter with them is an unequivocal pleasure. Bizarre human hybrids of cactus, mosquito, insect, and machine populate worlds as unique as the floating city of Armada, and High Cromden - a nation of the living, ruled by the dead. There's enough creativity and imagination in 'The Scar' to fill a dozen fantasy books with plenty left over. Mieville goes a step further and brings his creations to life with fantastical descriptions delivered in hauntingly beautiful passages echoing with the gothic overtones of his world.
The characters are well explored, and although our protaganist doesn't evoke much sympathy, she's not really meant to. With her emotions hidden tightly in check and her understanding of Armada nonexistent, Bellis is by no means the classical hero of fantasy literature. Her role is mainly to be carried away by events, try as she might to influence them. Mievelle's triumph is in the manner of his supporting characters. For instance, one of Aramda's sections is ruled by the Brucolac and his cadre of vampires. His formidable intensity is seamlessly integrated with sincere concern for his living subjects. The reader is further tantalized with expertly timed hints about the nature of the scarred duo, the Lovers. Mieville weaves his central themes into the nature of his characters, and the entire story is richer as a result.
The plot is riveting, based as it is in such a unique and vibrant world. As it unfolds in tense dialogue, adept narrative, and rousing action, it also grows - the plotlines are deeper than they first appear and the reader is left guessing several times. As the novel progresses however, the climactic ending is always out of reach. There isn't the dose of stunning revelation the reader would expect, and the final few pages seem truncated. For a storyline that's been so painstakingly developed, the payoff feels disproportionaly weak.
Although Mieville doesn't wrap up his physical story perfectly, he resolves his exquiste thematic devlopment flawlessly, and the end result is that 'The Scar' still manages to be immensly satisfying. In fact, finishing this book isn't just a matter of closing it - the ideas it presents as well as the manner in which it delivers them are sure to affect anyone who reads the novel.
China Mieville has proved without a doubt that's he is one of the principal players in the unfolding fantasy/science fiction revolution. This is not a novel easily classified into genres, nor should it be. This isn't just a book, it's a literary masterpiece, an experience - and should be treated as such. Don't expect to read it in snatches: When you sit down with 'The Scar' make sure you're comfortable.