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Review of the Scar by China Mieville

Posted by phduffy on 2004-10-13 21:58:40
9 forum posts
A couple of years ago (or perhaps 4), China Mieville burst onto the scene with Perido Street Station. This novel is widely seen as one (if not the) reinventors of the fantasy genre, helping to shift it from ripping off Tolkien to 'elfpunk' (taken from Steampunk, which is stories set in Victorian England with airships and stuff like that... think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).

In fairness, Michael Swanwick published the Iron Dragon's Daughter in 1993, and Martha Wells has been doing stuff like this for a while, but Mieville.. um, refocused the attention? Ian McCleod is also doing some stuff in this vein.

Anyways, I personally am almost embarrassed these days when I pick up a new fantasy novel at the bookstore. I can't even get through reading the description on the back of the novel, because I’m so disgusted with it.
("Young prince Falchior was raised by his loving parents, but now that he's in the country of....
"Having lived on the streets with no memories of his parents, Swanville quickly joined the Thieves Guild. However, in their feud with the Magus Guild...
"The Princess had lived a sheltered life at Rag"a'Gaol, but now the strange men of VernorSen'den had arrived. What was behind the mysterious smile of Sven'dirk, the mysterious Prince????)

Almost 95 per cent of current fantasy is ripping off Tolkien, and/or set in some derivative of medieval Europe. Even the good stuff (George RR Martin, JK Rowling, allegedly Stephen Erickson) is set in this universe. To be sure, there are some writers working with different ideas (the elfpunk fiction, Peter Beagle, Phillip Pullman, Charles De Lint and the rest of the modern fantasists), but even they seem to be derivative of previous work.

At this point you might be asking yourself "Self, what the fuck is he talking about? I thought this was about the Scar, is he just going to name drop fantasy authors I've never heard of in an effort to impress me?" Fair question. The point of all this is that Mieville is appreciated because he's original. His setting is the world of Bas-Lag, a world with pirates, guns, airships, steam powered everything, 'remade' cyborg prisoners and much more. Mieville is a self described Tolkien hater (google him and Tolkien to read an interview of him ripping Tolkien apart), and set out to create a universe that doesn't owe anything to Tolkien.

Now, when I first heard all this (when Perido Street Station came out), I thought Nice! Time to get that book and read it! Then a good friend of mine who's opinions on matters of literature I trust (Nerhael) bought it, read it, and told me that while it was original, it just wasn't that good. We also have another friend who claims to not like fantasy (although he likes Gaiman and the Gunslinger Series) who likes Mieville. (Well, I think he does anyway). I may get back to this point later. Oh hell, I'll do it now. My guess is that he doesn’t like the generic formulaic aspects of fantasy, but when a good writer shows up and does something different he'll like it. (And yes, the Gunslinger and Gaiman are fantasy. They may straddle genres, but one of those genres is clearly fantasy).

So okay, I sort of filed Mieville in the back of my mind. On Saturday I was at the bookstore and saw The Scar, and figured, what the hell, I'll pick it up.

This is one of the best books I've read this year, and the best fantasy novel I've read in a long time.

The Scar is set in the same universe as Perido Street Station, but no knowledge of Station is required for the Scar. It's the story of Bellis, and young woman fleeing the New Crobuzon government. She gets on a ship, the ship gets kidnapped by pirates (sweet, pirates!), and all the captives are taken to a giant city ship... run by pirates. (A City of Pirates! FUCK YES!)

Apparently, one of the weaknesses of Perido Street Station is that Mieville can sometimes be gross just to be gross. I can see some of that in The Scar, but I don't think it's overwhelming. I was too busy being engrossed by the plot and characters to notice. There aren't any Black and White characters in The Scar, and the plot isn't some stupid quest plot to find a magic trinket, which when returned to civilization will vanquish the EVUL bad dudes and get rid of baldness. Characters are fleshed out and complex, and the plot twists and weaves as appropriate.

I liked this novel so much that I went out and bought Mieville's next novel (Iron Council) in hardcover, stressing both my limited student budget and time. By all accounts, Iron Council is supposed to be the best novel Mieville has ever written. I'm also very curious about Perido Street Station - did Mieville improve as a writer? Will I just disagree with Nerhael on this one? I guess we'll wait and see.

Recommended.

Oh yeah, I also ordered the new Iain M Banks book in HardCover. Are you ready... for The Algebraist!
I can't decide if that title is lame or cool.

  9 forum posts