Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: "The Scar" by China Mieville

When her beloved city of New Crobuzon turns dangerous, linguist Bellis Coldwine lies her way aboard a ship bound for the distant colonies. Unlike the other passengers, she has no desire to make a new life anywhere new--only to lie low until the threat passes. But all hope of returning home is brutally ended when pirates attack the Terpsichoria. The ship and its passengers are forcibly integrated into the floating pirate city of Armada.

While Bellis rages at the loss of her way home, others of the Terpsichoria's passengers find Armada to be an unlooked-for reprieve. The convict Tanner Sack, cruelly surgically altered as punishment for his crimes, was destined to a life of slavery in the colonies--but Armada welcomes him with open arms. In a floating city, Tanner's amphibious modifications are a gift, rather than the curse the New Crobuzon judges intended.

But the rulers of Armada have set their sights higher than mere piracy. A tangled web of secrets, absurd myths, and arcane research surrounds their purposes. Willing or unwilling, Armada requires Bellis and Tanner's skills--even if their service could mean the end of everything they know.

4.5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Remember when Stephen King said that J.K. Rowling "never met an adverb she didn't like"? In The Scar, China Mieville is in the same boat. The man loves his thesaurus more than a bride loves her wedding day.

"Why use an everyday word when there's an entire industry built around promoting S.A.T. vocabulary?" Mieville seems to ask himself. The effect is comparable to setting the table with the family silver, every day. It's nice for special occasions, but most days, you just want to eat a hamburger. With your bare hands.

For example, Mieville uses the word "puissant" eighteen times over the course of The Scar. For those of you who haven't encountered this word in the wild, puissance just means "power." (Or the high-jumping portion of an equestrian show competition. But Mieville probably means the first definition.) While "power" is a perfectly serviceable noun--one which passes without notice--the too-frequent occurrence of the same obscure word becomes like an air horn going off as you turn the pages.

(Other fun games you can play with The Scar, if you get tired of counting "puissants"--take a shot each time Bellis is exhausted from having to speak with another person! Take another each time Mieville puts scene breaks in the middle of an ongoing conversation because he can't imagine how else to change subjects! Feel your soul die a little at the frequency with which he labels his supporting cast "autistic" and "cretins!")

Aesthetic twitting aside, The Scar is a truly fascinating novel. I've read it once per year for the past three years running, because I can only get it out of my mind for so long.

Steampunk pirates, airships, deep-sea explorations, islands of mosquito-people, two fugitives (one living, one undead) from a city of sepulchres where the dead reign... The book is full of arresting imagery and mini-adventures that weave together into one stunning panorama.

In tone, it is nearly equal parts swashbuckling and cynical. Sometimes it is gruesome, sometimes it veers just on the edge of nightmarish, but at its heart, it's that rare beast: the adventure that lives up to its full potential in every way.

The term "worldbuilding" gets tossed about a bit in speculative fiction. In my opinion, Mieville is one of few authors who has actually built an entire world, rather than just a country or a region. The characters reside on a planet (or perhaps a flat plane, as the book seems to suggest) with an inexpressibly vast range of peoples, places, and eras. Historical events, a multitude of nations and powers long since fallen, original local proverbs, are all tossed about with graceful ease.

Most of it, Mieville mentions without ever going into detail. The confidence with which he writes conveys the needed sense of context, even if no actual explanation is forthcoming. Just as we might say "when in Rome" without stopping to explain the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and its effect upon the world we know, so Mieville's characters casually refer to the Malarial Queendom or the Mercy Ships of the Bered Kai Nev. The reader will be curious for more without feeling lost in the story itself.

What The Scar lacks is a strong backbone of empathy with its characters. Much of this is due to how Mieville characterizes Bellis, his primary narrator. Bellis rejects attachment to the rich and complex city of Armada, and refuses to entertain any interest in or compassion for her fellow cast members. She holds herself--and by extension, the reader--at arms' length from any sort of emotional investment in the adventure. She reads like an escapee from an Ayn Rand knockoff.

The Scar gets better once the reader learns to wad up and toss out Bellis's judgments of her fellow characters. Even then, it's tough to deeply engage with the book when one's narrator is an anthropomorphized eyeball, constantly rolling in disdain.

While there are characters whose personal narrative could invite the reader's compassion--Tanner Sack's, for instance, as he learns how to be a free man and how, in turn, to set free the person he most fears losing; or the never-quite-explained but evidently tragic romance of Uther Doul and the Brucolac; or Armada's two rulers, the Lovers, who scar each other it matching patterns until they are nearly (but not quite) indistinguishable one from the other--Mieville seems to share Bellis's sentiments. The Scar will draw in the reader's imagination, but push away their sympathy.

Nevertheless, despite its cold heart and overly gilded vocabulary, The Scar is undeniably a masterpiece in an admittedly underpopulated genre. After three rereadings, during which my esteem for the complex story only grew, it's time I grant it the high marks it deserves. 

Complexity of Writing: 5/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 2/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass

Overall Response: It's like Mieville said "Well, yes, it's a story about pirates and sea monsters, but it's HIGH LITERATURE! I'll prove it by denying the reader any emotional connection with the pages. Only genre trash is empathetic. Real art is passionless and puissant! Where's my thesaurus?" But dang if I don't keep reading this book.

Content Warning:  character deaths, self-injury, gore and graphic imagery, medical abuse, pervasive ableist language

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