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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Scar

China Miéville

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To purchase The Scar

Title: The Scar
Author: China Miéville
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 638 pages
Availability: The Scar - US
The Scar - UK
The Scar - Canada
The Scar - India
Die Narbe - Deutschland
La cicatriz - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressive large-scale fantasy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 18/5/2002 Steven Poole
The Independent . 3/6/2002 Kim Newman
San Francisco Chronicle . 23/6/2002 Michael Berry
Sunday Telegraph . 12/5/2002 Andrew McKie
The Times . 27/4/2002 Peter Ingham

  Review Consensus:

  Generally fairly impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Once the novel settles down after its ill-judged beginning, Miéville begins to construct an intriguing plot of espionage and deceit. (...) By the middle of this riotous doorstop, it is clear that what makes Miéville special compared with other writers in the potentially malodorous genre of fantasy is that he doesn't just populate his universe with freaks and trinkets, wind them up and and watch them dance across the table.(...) The Scar eventually demonstrates enough invention and brutal energy, firmly ruled by a calm architectonic intelligence, to show that Miéville is one of the most imaginative young writers around in any kind of fiction." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "The Scar is a feat of the imagination, a rich reclamation of the pleasures of every genre. It's also a caution against imagination, a sobering look at the chaos left in the wake of every mad visionary." - Kim Newman, The Independent

  • "There is no doubting Mieville's writing skills and stern commitment to his vision, and Mieville strives to fill a huge canvas, unafraid of big page counts, outlandish characters and extravagant set pieces. The novel would benefit from the excision of 150 to 200 pages, but there's no denying that its author knows how to orchestrate a sweeping narrative." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Mieville's creatures end up none the wiser, but there is nothing uncertain about his confidence in his own inventions. And it is wonderfully infectious; Armada, like New Crobuzon, has the feel and complexity of a living place -- it's just that you wouldn't want to live there." - Andrew McKie, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The Scar shares many of its predecessor's virtues. But it also shares its flaws: chiefly that it is too long and too elaborate. The tone is also relentlessly grim, unleavened by any hint of humour or joy. Mieville's limited emotional palette consists mainly of fear, rage, guilt and pain." - Peter Ingham, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Scar is set in the same world as Miéville's previous novel, Perdido Street Station, but there is almost no overlap. While Perdido Street Station was set in the great metropolis of New Crobuzon, The Scar is set pretty much everywhere but, and the characters are only tenuously linked to any from the first novel. (The Scar can be readily understood and enjoyed without any familiarity with the earlier book.)
       The main character in The Scar is Bellis Coldwine, a linguist who has had to flee New Crobuzon (for reasons that are not immediately revealed) and wants to lay low for a couple of years. She decides to go to a a distant New Crobuzon colony, Nova Esperium, and manages to get passage on a ship headed there, transporting her and a few other passengers -- as well as a hold full of prisoners. (Technologically Miéville's world is generally (but not entirely) less advanced than ours: there are some airships and the like but no planes, for example.) Several of those on board figure prominently throughout the book, including the naturalist Johannes Tearfly, the tentacled remade prisoner Tanner Sack, and then Silas Fennec.
       The ship first gets diverted and then attacked and taken by pirates. These aren't your usual pirates, either: they're from Armada, and Bellis' ship soon becomes part of Armada: "A flotilla of dwellings. A city built on old boat bones."
       The huge island-city is, indeed, made of boats attached to each other, tugged around by others, supplied by more. It is populated by a variety of peoples and species, and those from the pirated ship deemed acceptable and posing no danger are allowed to stay and become part of the community. (No one is, however allowed to go: once there you're stuck there.)
       Bellis is one of those who is given a job and a place to stay -- but she's not entirely happy. She yearns for New Crobuzon; even if it's too dangerous for her to be there now, she eventually wants to return. Others are more pleased -- especially the prisoners, who are freed, and the Remade, who are treated like any other citizens here. Tanner Sack, in particular, flourishes in the new environment.
       It turns out Armada isn't just an aimlessly wandering ever-growing pirate outpost. Some of those in charge -- in particular the odd couple called the Lovers -- seem to have a plan. or, as it turns out, several plans. The first is to harness an incredible source of energy. And then there's an even greater ambition in the distance.
       Bellis' language-skills involve her in some of these goings-on, though she only gradually learns the extent of it all. Her unwillingness to forget New Crobuzon and her desperate desire to return also colour some of her actions -- at first putting her in considerable danger, then others. Armadan politics and differing priorities also add to the confusion and tension: it's not just one big happy family.
       Some of Mieville's inventions are marvelous, in particular the energy source that Armadans harness, as well as the incredible island harbouring the anophelii, a race of human-sized mosquito-beings (on which the book's bests and most terrifying scenes are set). Impressive also is how fantasy is encountered: the unusual is natural here, and Mieville does not bother trying to sensationalize it because it's so obviously sensational in and of itself (and some of his inventions are truly stunning). And everything seems possible in these worlds, and yet there's always something new. Typically:

Armada was heading for Gironella's Dead Sea, where the water was ossified in its wave forms, entombing all life within. It was heading for the Maelstrom, for the edge of the world. It was heading for a cacotopic stain. It was heading for a land of ghosts, or talking wolves, or men and women whose eyes were jewels or who had teeth like polished coal, or a land of sentient coral, or an empire of fungus, or it was heading somewhere else, maybe.
       Bellis is the main character, interacting with the other significant figures, but Mieville also shifts focus to some of these as well. Tanner, who has himself additionally remade in order to become a true creature of both water and land, is particularly successful. But there are also the different powers that would be on Armada. And there's a subversive in their midst.
       Mieville offers some neat twists to the plot, and he uses his rich set of very different characters (from the vampiric to the cactus-like) effectively. There are no lulls and a great deal of good action: The Scar is thoroughly engaging throughout.
       There are some weaknesses too: as in Perdido Street Station, Miéville has an annoying habit of withholding information until he sees fit, a device that too often reeks of artifice -- nowhere more ridiculously than regarding Bellis' reasons for fleeing New Crobuzon (there's no reason for not revealing that from the first, but Mieville coyly teases it out -- and then disappoints with the feeble reason that is eventually offered). Focussing on Bellis' viewpoint allows readers to be privy to some significant information, but many pieces are left tantalizingly (or, more often: annoyingly) just out of reach. (If Mieville told the tale solely around Bellis this wouldn't be nearly as irritating, but since he does switch over and consider and reveal other points of view and occurrences this toying with the reader doesn't serve any convincing purpose (other than (very) artificially -- and superfluously -- trying to create some sort of 'suspense').)
       Miéville also hasn't quite figured out how to add depth to his characters: they're made up of bits and pieces -- physical characteristics, a bit of history (usually something dramatic happening sometime in their pasts) -- without almost ever providing enough to make them seem three-dimensional. Occasionally he manages to flesh some out -- Tanner, in particular -- but for the most part they're defined by their actions rather than any personality that might lurk underneath. (Not surprisingly, Mieville is best with some of the characters that have no personality: he conveys the mosquito-man Aum (and Bellis' dislike of him) very well.) Even Bellis herself remains largely a cipher: her motivations and her past remain too vague to make her truly compelling. (Mieville has her pen a letter to someone (she's not sure exactly who) throughout these adventures, but even they are not truly self-revealing.)
       (There's also Mieville's odd habit of providing short sections in italicised print which sound like the soul-searching of some of the characters -- artsy little intermissions meant to fluff or puff things up which don't greatly impress either.)

       The Scar is a good, big fantasy novel, with a couple of very memorable inventions and a good storyline with some nice surprises. What flaws there are are certainly forgivable -- leaving the books perhaps not quite as good as it could be, but still mighty good.

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The Scar: Reviews: China Mieville: Other books by China Mieville under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author China Miéville was born in 1972.

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© 2003-2017 the complete review

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