Review of The Scar by China Miéville
by China Miéville
I'm not sure how I feel about China Miéville.
On one hand, Miéville is a competent writer and, even better, a superb storyteller. The three books of his that I've read (including this one) are good. People tend to gush about his worldbuilding, often at the expense, I think, of talking about everything else that's great about his stories, but they do it because of his obvious skill in this area. Many great fantasy authors create wonderful stories by taking the traditional elements of fantasy and executing them in new or skillful ways. Miéville, instead, is all about making his own rules.
On the other hand, my enjoyment of his books has not been unconditional. My reviews of The City & the City and Perdido Street Station are positive and enthusiastic, but as with those books, I cannot quite bring myself to give The Scar five stars. And I honestly can't tell you which of the three books I like best. Miéville, for me, is slightly ineffable. I don't really know why.
I didn't like Bellis Coldwine. She is intelligent but guileless, and she seems to lack initiative. Once taken captive by pirates, she becomes a press-ganged citizen of Armada, a vast ocean-borne city constructed out of floating hulks of ships. Bellis is free, but she can never leave Armada. Nevertheless, now that she's aware of the city's existence, she feels compelled to escape somehow and warn her hometown, New Crobuzon, of Armada's nature. This is the same New Crobuzon whose militia has been hunting Bellis because of her connection to the main character from Perdido Street Station; it's this semi-fugitive status that causes Bellis to leave the city in the first place.
I don't like protagonists who wallow in their powerlessness. I had the same problem with Yeine in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Like Yeine, Bellis is a competent and capable person, but she can't seem to do anything without first aligning herself with other characters, and those allies inevitably have ulterior agendas. In fact, one of the best parts of The Scar comes toward the end when a character whom we've been encouraged to view as a protagonist suddenly turns out to be an opportunistic antagonist. Eventually Bellis ends up working with everyone she spent the first half of the book trying to avoid—but that's through no actions of her own. She's merely carried along by the plot, and that disappoints me.
Fortunately, there are secondary characters aplenty who make The Scar an interesting read. Tanner Sack is a criminal from New Crobuzon, shipped out on the same vessel as Bellis, only in chains and Remade. He's got chest tentacles! In Armada, however, even the Remade are free and equal, so Tanner pledges his loyalty to his new home in a way Bellis is categorically incapable of doing. He embraces his new tentacles and gets Remade even further, becoming a creature at home in the water even as he works in Armada as an engineer. And he befriends Shekel, the former cabin boy of the ship on which he was a prisoner. Shekel is a fifteen-year-old boy who falls head-over-heels in love when he arrives at Armada. At first I thought Miéville was going to create a love triangle between Shekel, Tanner, and Angevine—much to my surprise, Tanner's interactions with the two lovers were always for their benefit, with nary a hint of jealousy. I like it when I'm wrong in my predictions in this way. The relationship between Tanner and Shekel is an important metric for Bellis' contributions to the fate of Armada. Tanner helps Bellis once, regrets it, and helps her again—albeit obliquely—when he learns she was just as much a pawn as he was. Shekel is the one who pays for their mistakes.
The relationships between Tanner and Shekel and between Shekel and Angevine are also significant because they are pretty much unique. The other relationships in The Scar are ambiguous. Miéville noticeably avoids any suggestions of romance. In fact, he draws attention to the absence of romance from people's partnerships. Bellis and Silas Fennec have sex as they work to get word to New Crobuzon, but they don't "make love;" they just fuck. Bellis is frank with her lack of feelings for Silas: they aren't lovers, and they aren't even friends. They're allies. Later, Bellis wonders if Uther Doul is flirting with her—she even admits that she kind of wants him to make a move:
She was drawn to him, powerfully. She wanted him: his power and his grim self-control, his beautiful voice. His cool intelligence, the obvious fact that he liked her. The sense that she would be more in control than he, should anything happen between them, and not just because she was older. She would not coquette, but she engineered enough of a dynamic that he must know.
But he never touched her. Bellis was unsettled by that.
Uther Doul is another intriguing character, if only because he's the only character who has a true backstory. He's a cipher whose true intentions, whether amatory or political, are occluded. Like pretty much every character in the book, he can't be called a protagonist or an antagonist, but it seems like, more than most of the characters, he does have Armada's best interests in mind.
Of course, the one pair who symbolize Miéville's avoidance of romance have to be the Lovers themselves. The leaders of Armada in all but name, the Lovers signify their "affection" for each other by mutually scarring their bodies (this is but one of the multitudinous meanings that "scar" has in this book). The point is that the relationship they have is not one of love and mutual affection. It's a combative, abusive relationship conducted in a language filled with terms of endearment. Their involvement begins with passion but gets twisted, sullied, and ultimately reforged into a kind of frenetic madness that cements their unity. True to form, however, Miéville cannot leave anything in his world alone, and he pushes that unity to its breaking point—and beyond.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is this: The Scar has travel and adventure and conflict. There's a huge, almost epic battle scene between a New Crobuzon fleet and Armada, one with ramifications for all of our major characters. Armada succeeds in harnessing an avanc, an extra-dimensional sort of leviathian-like beast that it uses as a means of propulsion, and it sets out upon the Empty Ocean toward the eponymous Scar, where reality itself is broken and in flux. They meet up with a familiar face who tells a tale of an alternative possibility where Armada goes over the edge and falls into the Scar, and the way Miéville describes it is sufficient for me to imagine a scene out of something like Pirates of the Caribbean. The Scar definitely has cinematic qualities to it. But that's not what I focused on when I was reading, and it's not what I remember when I think about the book.
What sticks in my mind about The Scar is Bellis Coldwine's sense of loneliness and alienation. Despite my misgivings about her ineffectiveness as a main character, she does a fine job conveying the futility she feels while trapped on Armada. The central question for me, as the reader, was "whose side am I on?" What do I want to see happen? Do I want to see New Crobuzon arrive to smash Armada, killing so many people, just so Bellis can go home? Do I want Armada to reach the Scar, despite the consequences it might have for the rest of the world? Miéville creates a dilemma, not just because the characters are morally ambiguous, but because their situations are also ambiguously amoral. There is no clear division between "good" and "bad" here, and there aren't even clear divisions between protagonists and antagonists—everyone seems to be on his or her own side, and allegiances shift with the tides.
So The Scar is riveting, and it's fascinating. As with his other two books, it isn't entirely convincing. There are aspects that make me hesitate when it comes to falling in love with Miéville's work. I don't have any reservations about his skill or his craftsmanship. Yet something prevents me from fully committing to him.
It is entirely possible, however, that I am over-analyzing. Maybe my trepidation is just a sign of how well Miéville manages to defy my expectations and deliver something unique: it's just so good I'm suspicious of how good it is! While I am not sure how I would rank The Scar against the other two novels I've read, it does stand out for the extremes to which Miéville goes to depict a different world entirely. New Crobuzon was a weird city, but it was still a city. Armada is something completely different. However, that is where the differences end. The tone and the style and the trademark themes established in his other works are still there. And maybe that's the source of my discomfort: despite his departure from other authors in his genres, within his own oeuvre, what little of it I've experienced, Miéville is remarkably consistent. I want to see him do more, and do it differently from how he's done it before. Until I do, he'll continue to impress me, but I'm always going to be left less than sated.