The Scar: Required fantasy reading of the 21st century

China Mieville New Crobuzon The Scarurban fantasy book reviews China Mieville New Crobuzon 2. The ScarThe Scar by China Miéville

The Scar is the second of China Miéville’s critically acclaimed Bas-Lag novels, which are sometimes called “the anti trilogy” because the books follow different characters and conflicts. Ostensibly, each of the three novels bears some relationship to New Crobuzon, the greatest city in Bas-Lag. Miéville catapulted to fame amongst fantasy readers with his first Bas-Lag book, Perdido Street Station and has done something even more amazing in its sequel, The Scar.

Miéville’s first surprise is taking the reader out of New Crobuzon, the fascinating city of Perdido Street Station. His second surprise comes in his creation of Bellis Coldwine, an emotionally detached translator from New Crobuzon. Bellis is a “strong female character,” yet Miéville’s characterization of her is unusual within the genre. Bellis never overcomes her city ways to appreciate nature and a “rough around the edges” hero. Instead, she takes charge of her life without becoming a warrior princess. Bellis remains cool, confident, and calculating as she schemes her way through The Scar. In short, Bellis Coldwine is a modern, professional woman, an archetype rarely seen in fantasy.

Unfortunately, while on a job translating for two parties at sea, Bellis is kidnapped along with everyone else when pirates hijack her ship. Bellis is taken away to “Armada,” a mysterious ocean city made up of stolen rigs, wrecks, and ships. The logistics and social customs of Armada are fascinating, but Miéville’s greatest achievement with the floating city may be its political structure.

Or structures. Armada is made up of several districts that struggle to make decisions for their city. However, Garwater, ruled by the Lovers, has recently become dominant. Their plans will bring Armada undreamt-of glory, unless they bring destruction.

Miéville always has a deft touch with monsters, and his greatest monster in The Scar is no exception. The Lovers seek to harness the power of the “avanc,” an enormous creature from another dimension capable of pulling Armada across the seas of Bas-Lag as it relentlessly walks along the ocean floor. The avanc is a creature so powerful that it will even allow the Lovers to reach the “Scar,” a place of immense power on the far side of a vast, windless ocean. What awaits the Lovers and the citizens of Armada?

No one knows for sure.

Unlike Bellis, readers will find themselves wishing that they could live in Miéville’s pirate city. Armada is a stunningly original setting, and Miéville relies not only on his characters but also on his fascinating ideas to keep the story moving. Perhaps my favorite invention in The Scar is the Dry Fell Protectorate. Run by vampires, the Dry Fell Protectorate asks its citizens to pay their taxes in blood. Although Miéville’s city is wonderfully described for us, he always leaves room for readers to imagine more.

The Scar is Miéville’s third novel and he has clearly grown as a writer. The opening passage of Bas-Lag’s underwater world is majestically written and stands in contrast to the schemes of the Bellis and the Lovers riding on the waves in their city. Miéville’s dialogue leaves room for his characters to express themselves, as opposed to merely advancing the plot. Only his diction holds Miéville back. Although Miéville has an impressive vocabulary, he has a tendency to rely on words like ‘pugnacious,’ ‘puissant,’ and cursing to a point that these words eventually lose their power, or puissance. However, this is a minor complaint amongst so many other superb accomplishments.

Readers will find themselves lost at sea, swept away by the Lovers and their daring plot to reach the Scar. Miéville has a stunning ability to stand outside many of the standard paths taken in fantasy, creating utterly new perspectives and motivations in his unusual characters. Perhaps Miéville’s novels make for such refreshing reading because they so successfully defy genre expectations. For this reason, many choose to classify Miéville’s writing as “weird” rather than fantasy. Certainly it’s fantastic, and The Scar has swords that operate outside the realm of possibility and sorcery that remakes humans into ocean creatures. No matter how we classify Miéville’s work as a whole, The Scar is required reading for fantasy fans in the 21st century.


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RYAN SKARDAL is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF. Ryan and his wife make their home in New Jersey, where they read alongside several cats and two highly disobedient huskies.

View all posts by Ryan Skardal

2 comments

  1. Agreed again. I really need to reread these books. I’m now very curious to see your thoughts about The Iron Council. I absolutely loved it but it seems to be the least favorite of the trilogy for many of Mieville’s fans.

  2. I liked Iron Council, but it’s still my least favorite of the Bas-Lag books. For me, the characters just didn’t cut it. Having said that, Iron Council has some of Mieville’s best ideas and conflicts.

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