Monday, January 07, 2008

The Scar by China Mieville

China Mieville is one newish author whose name and work are always mentioned with a kind of awed reverie. Indeed The Scar is an ambitious and very different kind of scifi-fantasy novel. It would be hard for anyone to live up to the hype this guy gets, but I'll admit it came damn close.

I read a bunch of interviews before I read The Scar, which was good, because I realized that the real person is way cooler than just "the next big thing." He's an unabashed fan of the genre. That's always good. I hate writers who write genre and then pooh pooh it. This guy is the real deal. It was also really refreshing to read about someone with up front leftist values, and then read those values at work, informing a novel.

Blah, blah, blah... What about the novel? Well, first off it gave me a new understanding of the term Urban Fantasy. That usually means vampires and other hoodoo creatures on the streets of X modern American city. Not here. Here urban is used in contrast to rural or rustic fantasy, the kind I usually eat up, set in idyllic agrarian feudal societies where some pestilence is about to throw the quiet country folk into turmoil. Think LOTR. Think WoT.

The story centers on a translator named Bellis who is migrating to a colony across an ocean, on the run from the Militia of her home, the monolithic city, New Crobuzon. The ship she contains a few interesting characters, including an ocean biologist and a hold full of "the remade". These are people who have commited crimes in NC and are punished with disfiguring surgeries designed to make them into more efficient workers AND banishment to indenture in the colonies.

The ship is hijacked by pirates from a floating city called Armada and that is when the adventure really begins. This is a huge (200k) sprawling novel with a vivid, memorable setting and characters. One, Uther Douhl, has an incredible item called a Possible Sword. The buildup is slow, but when this guy finally takes action, it is pretty amazing. The same goes for the novel as a whole. There is a lot of buildup and then three (not one, not two) but three, exciting climaxes. Intrigue, betrayal, politics and massive sea battles ensue. And I am not talking about a few sailing vessels lobbing bombs after each other and struggling to turn slowly about in the winds. "All hands on deck!" No. This is an entire floating city v. naval fleet. Bad ass.

After that, I felt like the climax had been reached, but there were still 100 pages to go. Luckily, even when I thought he couldn't top the battle, he did. This novel has an amazing array of special effects. Very visual and extremely powerful. Scary even.

Speaking of scary, there is some gross shit in this book. Not all the time, but when it happens, it is awful. There is a whole theme of ecological disaster here that slowly builds. It is never beating you over the head, but at some point I was just like, "Wow, these people are fucking up their world just like we have."

My biggest gripe with The Scar is that it felt longish, especially in the first half. Now I know David Gemmel is about as far as you can get on the fantasy spectrum, but I just read Ironhand's Daughter not long ago and just in terms of getting the story told, Gemmel is a master. At 100k, that novel was compact and powerful. I realize that Mieville has a lot more going on in terms of world building, but I still think he could handle that more compactly and still get to the same powerful conclusions.

For example, one thing I noticed Mieville do over and over again, is to come at a scene two or even three times. You kind of get these sweeping pans across the city with a slow close up of a meeting or interaction. Then he starts over and comes at it from the PoV character, and then maybe from another character. This works well during the big battles where there is a lot going on. Those were superb. But in other areas, it got old and I wished his editor had told him: One Scene. Make it one scene and make it brilliant. There was no need to make two or three starts at it.

The second stylistic thing that bothered me, and where I believe the novel drug again and again was Mieville's penchant for summarizing the atmosphere of the city. I'm sure his timelines worked out, but the jumping from general to particular often left me out of sorts. For example, an event takes place. Then comes a section with a phrase like "for the next few weeks the atmosphere in the city was _____" and further general description of the kinds of things happening. Then he goes to (paraphrasing) 'two days after [event]' Bellis was reading in the library." I understand why he did this, it helped give a sense of life to Armada as a whole, but the jumping around was a trifle annoying.

Overall, The Scar is beautiful and ugly in many of the right ways. No question China Mieville is an amazingly gifted writer and I will be looking into Perdido Street Station soon.
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