The Short Version: Bellis Coldwine escapes New Crobuzon on a boat bound for the colonies to the East – but when the ship is turned around and then captured by pirates, she’s left without a plan. Still, Armada (the near-mythic floating city of ships) might provide her with a chance to get home – but the rulers of the city have a plan of their own: to find a rent in the very fabric of the world known as the Scar…
The Review: It’s safe now to say (if it wasn’t before) that I’m an unabashed, 110% into it Miéville fan. I have yet to be disappointed by one of his novels (I’m even considering giving Kraken another off-the-record read, just to see if it strikes me differently several years later), even if The Scar doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor. The man’s imagination is simply second-to-none.
The Scar begins some six months after Perdido Street Station ends, although it is by no means a direct sequel. Bellis Coldwine, our main character, was a former lover of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and, after his disappearance, was targeted as one of his potential associates. Although we never see New Crobuzon in this novel, it feels important to’ve read the previous novel in the sequence – not because of any story-knowledge we needed to have (Bellis doesn’t know of the slake moths or the reality behind those horrible dreams that smothered the city) but because of the city itself. Like Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris, Sir Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, or even Miéville’s own Besźel/Ul Qoma, New Crobuzon is a city that exists in the reader’s mind outside of the novel and outside of fiction to some extent. The reader, if they are so inclined, adds these cities to those they’ve visited in the real world and finds that they blend together smoothly. If you’d never read about New Crobuzon, you could read this novel and still enjoy it immensely – but your enjoyment can only be multiplied by having the background first.
The downside of having read PSS first is that this book cannot quite live up to that magnificent gold standard. The first 50 or so pages of this book feel labored, both in terms of style and the vague sense that the characters are casting about for the plot. There are hints of something interesting here and there but it is not until Bellis and those who sailed with her upon the Terpsichoria are press-ganged into Armadan society that the novel finds its footing. To some extent, Miéville retreads some of the turf that made PSS so terrific: the depiction of an utterly strange city. And Armada, considered a city by everyone in the novel, may well be the strangest city that I’ve ever encountered. It is often described as relatively small for a city – but it sees dozens (if not hundreds) of boats lashed and planked and otherwise brought together to make a single floating entity. There is a joy in imagining this, both for the reader and the author. Miéville lingers just a breath longer than most would think to on ideas like how create a park on a boat in the middle of the ocean or the creation of a gladiatorial arena on the same and while that certainly helps extend this book to its 700+ page length (in the edition I read – others top out just over 600, through vagaries of size, etc), it never feel unnecessary.
The characters, too, are inspired creations for the most part. Tanner Sack, the Remade (a particularly horrifying punishment given to New Crobuzonian criminals where their bodies are magicked into new, horrific shapes) slave who is freed and given a chance in Armada, is a particular favorite: his story arc, which is secondary to Bellis & co’s, is inspiring and heartwarming in ways I could never expect. The Brucolac and Uther Doul, as well as the Lovers, are strange and fascinating in ways that Miéville excels at – they are totally human and yet utterly foreign individuals. And the instantly memorable species that circle this story (the anophelii, the cactacae, the grindylow, even the avanc) will never leave my mind. I saw a mosquito the other day and shuddered just thinking of the she-mosquitos and the Malarial Queendom of the anophelii.
The weak point of the book, unfortunately, comes from the main character. Bellis, quite simply, isn’t all that interesting. Her motivations are dynamic and engaging – she wants off the boat, she helps a spy, she’s maybe flirting with Uther Doul, etc – but she, as a character, seems so utterly forgettable that the novel doesn’t ever quite coalesce around her like it should. We are more interested in the boat-city from very early on, not because it is inherently interesting (which it is) but because it draws focus from the shrug of a protagonist.
Of course, the problem could also be the nature of the quest(s) in general. Half of the book is centered around attempting to raise a gigantic creature from another dimension, called an avanc, that could tow Armada around the seas (and it seems as though this had been tried before at some point, although Miéville leaves this thread hanging in the wind). The second half of the book (and I don’t see this as a spoiler, considering the novel’s title and how often they talk about it vaguely in that first half) sees Armada pushing into uncharted seas in pursuit of this Scar in reality.
There’s a bit of very good and very spooky worldbuilding here, where the folks who created the Scar (a race from a long time ago in Bas-Lag’s history) had maybe even come from the stars and with their landing fractured the world. This ties in, interestingly, to Isaac’s chaos theory in PSS – and Bellis sees a moment that purports to prove chaos theory false, even though we’ve seen (with our own two eyes on the page) chaos theory work. Miéville indulges this paradox as well as so many others by dipping healthily into probability theory throughout the novel, including the brilliant discussion(s) near the end regarding Possible objects, which can achieve all possibilities simultaneously.
But I found that the pursuit of the Scar was less engaging or interesting to me than the politics aboard Armada, the revelations about other parts of Bas-Lag, and the sense that the journey is the most exciting part of the adventure (as opposed to the destination). There is, without doubt, a sense of let-down that comes in the last 75 or so pages of the novel – not a deflating one, just a bit of a decrease in interest. Perhaps a stronger lead would’ve helped carry it through… but perhaps the destination here wasn’t the point, either.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I thought, as I was finishing the book, that all books might well be Possible objects – at least on that first read. They could say anything at all right until you open them, couldn’t they? What an amazing thing – and if the plot doesn’t quite satisfy, well, there are still amazing things that the book delivers from that probability wheel of possibility. Bas-Lag is a genius creation and Miéville continues to dazzle with his intelligence and imagination and I was so thrilled to luxuriate in this book over the course of a week’s lakeside vacation as opposed to grabbing it in fits and starts on the train or before bed. It was an adventure within an adventure.