Friday, July 1, 2011
The Scar by China Mieville
We begin on a ship, the Terpsichoria, with our reluctant, self absorbed and down right taciturn heroine, Bellis Coldwine, who has taken passage on the ship to escape her beloved home of New Crobuzon. We do know that Bellis is a linguist and sometimes translator, we don't know at that stage why she has fled. The Terpsichoria is bound for Nova Esperium, a young colony half way across the world, eager for new settlers.
There are other passage paying characters that become important later on, including Johannes Tearfly, a naturalist and scientist who was going to the Nova Esperium, to investigate the largely unstudied fauna of the new colony.
Bellow decks, the Terpsichoria is transporting a hull load of "remade" prisoners to see out their sentences on the new colony. Learning what remade means is the first of many truly fantastic delights in this book, as Mieville unleashes his extraordinary imagination describing convicts who have been surgically altered as part of their punishment, to change their functionality. I won't give away any spoilers here, except to say that part of the charm and intrigue of this story is what I think makes it fall under the steampunk category, and that is, while we are clearly in another world, the technology available is more like what was available around the time of the Industrial Revolution, steam engine power etc. Mieville does go beyond this as well though, and creates whole new types of energy and power, but there is not a computer chip or laser beam in sight.
The Terpsichoria is intercepted by a pirate ship, and the ship, and all aboard, except the captain who is killed, are abducted and taken to Armada, which, as the name suggests, is a city made entirely of sailing vessels linked together and built upon. This is really where the story begins, as our characters have to adapt to being citizens of Armada, with no hope for return to New Crobuzon. For the convicts from the Terpsichoria, it is a wonderful boon, they are suddenly free. For Bellis it is a nightmare that she spends all of her time trying to manoeuvre her way out of. She is employed by Armada as a librarian, in a city where books are mysteriously prized above nearly all else.
Throughout, Mieville's imagination and vision reign supreme. Besides humans, the novel is populated with characters from different made up species; there are fighters, cactus people and vampires, to mention only a few, who are all flung together on the Armada, a pirate city that has been sailing the seas for centuries. Much of the tension of the narrative comes from the machinations of the rulers of the city in their outlandish quest for power and dominance. We learn that the Terpsichoria was targeted for a reason and several of those on board, including Johannes and Bellis, were earmarked to play a significant part in trying to harvest an almighty power that has the potential to change the future for ever.
There are so many themes and so many levels this novel can be enjoyed on. For me the standout character is the floating ship city, Armada, itself. Mieville's writing transported me to this dark, constantly rocking, labyrinth. As odd as it might sound it is a bit reminiscent of some of Dickens settings, with a twist of course. The social conscience of the novel also adds to the Dickens feel I think. The story is about "the masses" being manipulated and sacrificed for the powerful and that sort of thing. But even if one doesn't notice any of those allusions, The Scar reads as a complex and fast paced adventure.
There is a lot of violence in the novel, but it is all for a purpose and adds to the narrative. I have not read better battle scenes, Mieville has a gift, not only for beautiful descriptions of landscape, but also whirling, fast paced action. His writing transported me into the midst of the landscape and action.
The Scar may not be for everyone; it features some very weird creatures and it is, at times, bloody and brutal, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps even more so, because I didn't think this would be "my sort of thing." What prompted me to try it, was China Mieville's most recent work, "Embassytown" has received plenty of favourable publicity here in Australia, and I have read some wonderful blogger reviews about it. I am glad I read The Scar first, as an introduction to China Mieville's alternate worlds, where he explores complex ideas. My understanding is that Embassytown is even more complex as he explores the role of language and communication. With my, not so secret, passion for crime fiction, I plan to tackle Mieville's "The City and the City" next where I believe he combines his weird fiction with crime fiction. What a marriage that sounds like. After reading The Scar, I can't wait to give it a go.