It was clear when reading China Miéville's mesmerizing Perdido Street Station that its setting, the dreamlike metropolis New Crobuzon and the world of Bas-Lag, possessed a nearly inexhaustible potential for future stories. In The Scar, Miéville proves the hype right by fulfilling that promise. The Scar, which takes a much more direct approach to structuring its plot than Perdido, is related to but not a sequel to that book. It stands alone as a story and can serve as an introduction to Miéville's extraordinary worldbuilding. There can now be no doubt that there's no one in contemporary fantasy writing quite like him, and we should all be delighted that a talent like his has come along at the turn of the century to inject life into a genre stuck for so long in a creative cul-de-sac.
The Scar takes us far from the teeming streets and slums of New Crobuzon, out into the rolling waves of the Swollen Ocean to the city's east. Bellis Coldwine is fleeing New Crobuzon for a distant colony. A linguist, she wangles passage as an interpreter on the Terpsichoria, a cargo vessel whose manifest happens to include, grimly, a shipment of Remades — those physically altered, criminal unfortunates — to work as slave labor in the colony.
On its way east, the Terpsichoria stops by an amazing undersea city inhabited by the quasi-human cray species. New Crobuzon has an agreement with the cray that allows three massive rigs to operate in their waters, but one of the rigs is inexplicably gone, and the cray plead ignorance. The mystery deepens with the appearance of Silas Fennic, a shadowy individual who holds some unrevealed official post in the New Crobuzon government. He takes command of the Terpsichoria, which begins to head back to New Crobuzon to the outrage of its paying passengers. But shortly into their voyage home, the seafarers are set upon by a gang of ruthless pirates, who kill the Terpsichoria's officers and shanghai the passengers and prisoners.
They are taken to Armada, an immense oceangoing pirate city comprised of thousands of ships lashed together and built up to resemble nothing so much as a floating New Crobuzon. Armada has its different districts, its slums, its cultural centers, its economy. One vast difference is that it treats all its inhabitants as equals, even the loathed Remades. Naturally this sets very well with them, particularly Tanner Sack, a prisoner aboard the Terpsichoria who comes to love his new life in Armada, and even finds his horrible Remade appendages — a pair of tentacles grafted onto his torso — starting to heal and work for him. In fact, Tanner is so happy he has himself Remade even further to become a fully amphibious being.
But Armada's ersatz freedom only exists within its watery borders. It's really a prison city. And Bellis is determined to resist the allure that it seems to hold over some of her former shipmates, all of whom have been offered jobs and a place in Armada's society. Her discovery that the missing third rig is now in Armada's possession deepens her concern. What is up with this place anyway, particularly its leaders, strange scarred beings known only as the Lovers? (The Lovers are but one of many referents to the book's title, by the way. A theme of severing and healing runs subtextually throughout, in regards to both the emotional and physical trauma suffered by the cast, and the fractured and tragic history of Bas-Lag itself.)
Through Silas, Bellis learns of a terrible invasion heading towards the unsuspecting New Crobuzon. Though it seems as if escape from Armada is indeed impossible, could there still be a way to get word to the enormous city, that grows more distant every day? There is also the little matter of the Lovers' bold plan to harness some terrifying power from the ocean depths, a project in which Bellis finds herself playing a key role.
Any more detailed a synopsis would run the risk of spoilers, which would simply be a crime given just how exciting this novel becomes as its numerous revelations and surprises unfold. Is Silas an ally or a villian? Will the undercurrent of rebellion against the Lovers' mysterious plans break out into open revolt? And just where is Armada going? Though the plot of The Scar follows a much more linear progression than that of Perdido Street Station (which should make those folks who found Perdido too meandering happy), it shares that novel's feeling of inexorability, its sense that events are plunging pell-mell out of control, and any attempt at resolution only seems to deepen the crisis.
Miéville keeps tight control of his story's pace. His dark imagination hasn't mellowed either. Disturbing, macabre creatures like the vampiric "ab-dead" and the bloodsucking anophilii share the multifarious stage with the familiar cast of humans, insect-headed khepri, and plantlike cactacae. (How I would love to see Wayne Douglas Barlowe illustrate Miéville.) It may be true that there are parts of the novel that go into exotica overkill. But I think most readers won't have a problem with it, especially when the book starts delivering its payoffs. The final third of The Scar features one of the most intense battles this side of George R. R. Martin, and yet Miéville's characters and their personal interactions have just as much intensity, only of a subtler sort.
The Scar is on a par with Perdido Street Station, and in its best moments it surpasses that novel. In its weakest, it seems too burdened with talk, and it is true that the mythic backstory of Bas-Lag is an awful lot to keep up with. But in the end that's a testament to China Miéville's energetic creativity and freshness. I would only suggest that perhaps, in his next novel, he should turn away from Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon, so the concept and setting don't fall into the sort of dreary routine that almost inevitably befalls long series. I want to stay hungry for China Miéville's books, and I always want to come away feeling just as well-fed as I have from this one.