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Sea and Scars: China Miéville's The Scar


I'm on a China Miéville binge recently. I've gone through most of his novels except for King Rat and Iron Council because they didn't really engage me in the first 50 pages (my threshold in reading, the number of pages I read before deciding to finish the book or not). The last I read was Embassytown, his excellent science fiction novel. So far, I wrote my reactions to some of his books on this blog: Perdido Street Station, The City and the City, and Un Lun Dun.

The Scar is the second of his novels set in Bas-Lag, following Perdido Street Station but reading that isn't required to start this one. Though having read Perdido Street Station might be helpful in being already familiar with the world, though this book already preps you on the world and it has some monsters that are not in the previous book. After the events in Perdido, people associated with Isaac der Grimnebulin are being hunted down by the militia of New Crobuzon. Isaac's ex, Bellis Coldwine, is on the run and embarks on a journey in the ship Terpsichoria to one of New Crobuzon's colonies, Nova Esperium. It's a temporary trip for her, she's planning to go back to New Crobuzon once the hunt for Isaac stops. This is the story of Bellis and her unexpected journey.

Bellis is very attached to her city and if given a choice, she wouldn't leave. Here we see the seas of Bas-Lag and wondrous description of new creatures. There are the humanoid sea creatures called Cray, the cactus-like cactacae, the monstrous blood-suckers called anophelii. There are even vampires. 

Bellis was never a traveler, so we see with her eyes. The journey is a long and dreadful, made worse and longer by a return journey to where it came from. Then out of nowhere... pirates of unknown origin take over the ship and all its passengers and prisoners. Bellis ends up in a very different place and takes a different adventure.

They are taken to Armada, a floating pirate city of connected ships. Most of the residents of this place were 'press-ganged' or kidnapped to live there, and it's almost impossible to get out once you are in.  This place is somewhat a historical myth, but it turned out to be real. Armada has its own unique culture, society, and government. It's somewhat communistic, with the new people given equal resources to live with. Armada is separated into ships and sections managed by their own ruler. Bellis ends up in Garwater, whose leaders are the enigmatic couple known only by the name "The Lovers." The Lovers' right-hand man and champion is the strong and mysterious Uther Doul. Uther Doul is the one who leads the pirate army to take over Bellis' ship.

Artists' impression of Armada (source)

The novel follows Bellis and other interesting protagonists. Tanner Sack, a Remade criminal in new Crobuzon supposed to be prisoner for his whole life, is given a second chance in Armada. As punishment for a previous crime, he was grafted with tentacles on his chest, a useless physical punishment but he finds that he can use them at sea. Shekel is a street kid who gets close to Tanner (though, in Armada he will meet a much older woman and they will have a May-December affair). 

What's the most interesting and unexpected part of the book that really delighted me is Bellis is assigned as a librarian in a  library of stolen books. As a librarian, I just love how accurate the portrayal is. I think China Miéville has a lot of love and respect for libraries as his books always feature libraries (maybe I should make a separate post about that!). 

There are a lot of intertwined plots in this book that makes it difficult to summarize. Anyway, Armada is moving, and The Lovers have plans for Armada that are a mystery to its citizens. Their first plan is a lot like Moby Dick - find and conjure up a mythical creature to speed up Armada but its just another stepping stone to their ultimate goal. It's really a challenge to summarize without giving major spoilers.

I think I love the book because of its main character, Bellis. She may seem unlikeable to some readers due to her cold and indifferent personality, and her passive reaction to events. Bellis does everything she can so she can go back to her city, but fate has other plans for her. I find Bellis relatable somehow.

However, I didn't really like "The Lovers". I find Uther Doul to be a much scarier and compelling character. He has a weapon called the 'Possibility Sword' which when described in the book sounds like something out of a Borges story. The wielder of the weapon can harness chance and possibility to have the most favorable outcome for whatever his purpose is. 

After reading Perdido Street Station, I sought out other books by Miéville. Out of all contemporary authors, he has a very unique approach to fantasy and it's something I've never read before. I also love how he portrays women in stories - he's proof that male authors can be good at writing women. As I said before, I hate sexual objectification in most stories and it's rare to find authors portray women in a way I prefer. His works are not perfect, but there's something really new and different here.

I know that I'm going all over the place now but I love the story, the strong characters, the alien world that feels so familiar. I found myself awed at the descriptions of vast creatures and monsters that really stretch the imagination. The story describes journeys and travels, and it reminds me of the time of Magellan and Columbus when most of the world was still a mystery. Here are descriptions of impossible and mythical lands, and the creatures that populate them. Even familiar monsters are given a new twist, another angle that you haven't thought of before. 

Anyone who knows my reading and writing taste, I absolutely love anything related to the ocean and sea creatures. A setting like Armada just leaves me stunned. After I read the book, it felt like I was still groggy from a long journey with Bellis. The best books leave you with that feeling.

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After gushing about The Scar, it's time to talk about the stuff I don't like much about the author's works. The three Bas-Lag novels are all unrelated in terms of story, but I began Iron Council (the third) yet it didn't really work for me. Perhaps this isn't the right time for me to read it (I do believe in timing even in reading). The first thing I think that's wrong with it is it begins with action and a group of people running from something and seeking after something. Yet it doesn't really say what it is at the right time, it really takes so long until it is revealed, so it feels like reading about people wandering without purpose. In simpler terms, the first scenes were boring me to tears. I think in a story, you want to know what the characters are struggling against so the reader can have something to root for so we can have a reason to keep reading. 

As for Iron Council, it felt like the disappointing third book of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. First two books were excellent but the third was weak. That's why I generally avoid trilogies and series books until they are finished. I don't really like having to buy other books so I can finish a story. I do think China Miéville is is one of the better writers today and I will keep reading his works. 

Up next, I will review his attempt at science fiction - Embassytown.

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