Book #29: The Scar (2002)

the-scarauthor: China Miéville
language: English
length: very long e-book (equivalent of 800 paper pages)
finished on: 26 April 2013

This was my next foray into the works of China Miéville, and the next in the Bas-Lag series of books after Perdido Street Station. Miéville has said that he wants to write a book in every genre, and this is his attempt at a sea expedition/adventure. It follows Bellis, previously a minor character in Perdido Street Station, as she escapes persecution by the authorities of her city, New Crobuzon, by sailing off to the colonies. However, she gets captured and not let go by pirates, and becomes a resident, against her will, of the floating pirate city of Armada. Then the book follows the city as it floats across the world, with many of the inventive beasts that Miéville is very adept at making.

Like Perdido Street Station, The Scar is very long, clocking in at 800 pages in the print version. I actually read it on my kindle, though. It took me a couple of months in total. During this time, I also downloaded another of Miéville’s books, “Railsea”, as an audiobook, so I started to some extent dividing my time between the two (also, audiobooks have the advantage that I can listen to them while walking or cycling – at times when printed or ebooks are inconvenient or impossible to read), which goes some way to explaining why it took me longer to read than the previous books. But it was really just very long.

In general, I don’t think I liked it as much as Perdido Street Station. I guess I was sort of expecting it to be more in the vein of Gulliver’s Travels, with the main character going to lots of different places, but Miéville seems desperate to set his story in a city, hence coming up with Armada, which is variously described across the book as a jumbled-up collection of boats tied together very tightly over a one or two mile radius. But it’s never so clear that I could just imagine it fully grown in my head (but I think that’s a failing of my imagination rather than a failing of the book!).

There is only one major sequence in which the characters land at an island and encounter other strange or dangerous sentient beings, as I’d expect from a sea adventure – this time, following the tradition Miéville set for himself in Perdido Street Station of crossing humans with unexpected other creatures, these are humans crossed with mosquitoes. Other foreign lands are mentioned and described by characters, but never visited by the main character.

Where this book excels is in the sheer richness of its descriptions and its world. Races that are mentioned in passing in Perdido Street Station, especially the Remade people (those with magically-altered bodies, usually done as a punishment), are explored in much greater detail in this story (many of those going to the colonies are Remade prisoners). Faraway lands, even though they aren’t visited, are described in great detail, making me want more. Even some simple things served to enrich the narrative, like when I started the novel, seeing the idiosyncratic spellings of common words like electric becoming elyctric or chemical becoming chymical, it was like being reintroduced into Miéville’s world after being away for a while.

One of the book’s best scenes, perhaps, was when a young boy character discovers the joy of reading for the first time, realising that he can piece together sounds and make words, and then gradually start devouring the pirates’ library bit by bit. It reminds me a lot of learning how to read Japanese now, even though I’m much slower at it. I definitely recognise the joy of realising that I can read something which I previously couldn’t.

The ending of the book was very satisfying, even though it probably shouldn’t be. The latter third of the book introduces plot devices and themes of uncertainty or outright chaos, and the ending ties these together nicely into something that is completely uncertain. The main character does not know the full truth of what really happened in the closing scenes, and neither do we, and actually I found this satisfying. The confusion and uncertainty works well in this case.

I’d recommend it, although I think I’d recommend Perdido Street Station first. The Scar is good, but I think Miéville excels more and describing a gritty, dirty city than a sea adventure.

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