Bas-Lag round 2. As in Perdido Street Station, I really want to love Mieville’s merging of different oddball concepts and his working to look at fantasy at new angles, and again, I didn’t feel like the novel delivered on the potential of Mieville’s world.
The Scar begins with a new character, Bellis Coldwine fleeing the city of New Crobuzon (due to the events of Perdido Street Station – I guess that’s a spoiler, but the eventual revelation is more fan service than plot service). She joins an oceanic voyage to a distant colony, but her ship is overtaken, and she winds up in the floating pirate city of Armada instead. She and her fellow travelers are impressed into serving in Armada, and she begins to build relationships with them. She teaches cabin boy Shekel how to read, she learns of scholar Johannes Tearfly’s new research agenda, and she befriends a Remade prisoner from the ship named Tanner Sack. A spy from New Crobuzon named Silas Fennec warns her that her home city might be in danger, but she also learns more about the leaders of Armada, including a scarred pair called the Lovers, a mercernary with a mystic sword named Uther Doul, and a shifty vampire called The Brucolac.
It kind of feels like I just listed characters there rather than describing the plot, but there’s not a whole lot of plot. The leaders of the Armada do have an elaborate plan that involves some mystical exploration, but I don’t want to spoil it. Most of the novel is just Bellis sitting around, pondering her allegiances or speculating on the Armada with her friends. It all feels a bit aimless. In some ways, this novel has the opposite problem of Perdido Street Station’s transition to lengthy, single-minded bug hunt. That novel became too focused, The Scar never quite gets focused enough.
I think the common denominator might be the characters. Isaac der Grinebulin bounced between opportunistic bastard, bohemian romantic, absent-minded professor, and action hero without really developing a distinctive voice, other than a very funny foul mouth. Bellis doesn’t even have the foul mouth going for her. There’s a nice bit about her writing letters to an undetermined audience, but otherwise, she’s a very passive protagonist. I suppose that’s her character arc, but since we spend most of the novel's 575 pages with her, she should at least be interesting.
There is plenty to like here. Armada is another fun creation (though I wish it had done more), as are some of the magic monsters, items, and phenomena in the book (the “might sword” is one of the coolest ideas I've seen in fantasy in a long time). The themes are more cohesive than Perdido, too. Every significant character ends up with mental and/or physical scars that nicely echo the mysterious Scar of the title, but Mieville keeps it from getting too heavy handed. And there are nice allusions to the likes of Moby Dick (Melville, Mieville?). His prose is, well, a bit more restrained, which I think is mostly for the best (this novel is “wobbling testicle” free).
It’s the many strengths of The Scar and Perdido Street Station that make me so frustrated that I haven’t really connected with either. I’m still going to come back for The Iron Council.