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The Scar
China Miéville
Del Ray, 638 pages

The Scar
China Miéville
China Miéville was born in London in 1972. When he was eighteen, he lived and taught English in Egypt, where he developed an interest in Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics. Miéville has a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge and a master's with distinction from the London School of Economics. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both an International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award. He lives in London, England.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Tain
SF Site Review: The Scar
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

The world probably doesn't need yet another review of China Miéville's The Scar, but what the heck, I'm going to put my two cents in.

As the novel opens, Bellis Coldwine is taking passage on a ship, fleeing persecution in her home city of New Crobuzon for an uncertain future in distant Nova Esperium. An urban intellectual, Bellis loathes the prospect of years of exile in the colonies, but when her ship is captured by pirates, she realizes she may never see her home again.

The pirates live on Armada, a secret floating city haphazardly lashed together from ships and debris.

"Countless naval architectures: Stripped longships; scorpion galleys; luggers and brigantines; massive steamers of hundreds of feet long down to canoes no larger than a man. There were alien vessels: ur-ketches, a barge carved from the ossified body of a whale. Tangled in ropes and moving wooden walkways, hundreds of vessels facing all directions rode the swells.

"The city was loud. Tethered dogs, the shouts of costermongers, the drone of engines, hammers and lathes, and stones being broken. Klaxons from workshops. Laughter and shouting, all in the variant of Salt, the mongrel sailors' tongue, that was the language of Armada. And below those city sounds the throaty noise of boats. Complaining wood and the snaps of leather and rope, the percussion of ship on ship."

For Bellis, Armada is a prison. But for Tanner Sack, a Remade slave, it's a miraculous opportunity for a new life. And for Silas Fennec, New Crobuzon spy, it's a stage for ever more powerful world-spanning intrigue.

"Sprawling" does not begin to describe the complexities of this wildly imaginative novel, populated by strange races and even stranger magical technologies. The word "WOW" keeps coming to mind when trying to describe Miéville's sheer overwhelming flood of scenery, characters, and ideas, all propelled by gorgeous prose. It's a hell of a ride.

Still, this wealth of detail, Miéville's multitude of viewpoints, and all the action tend to disguise some very basic structural problems with The Scar. For example, Miéville opens with a prologue that introduces one plot thread. He then briefly revisits this thread every few chapters, but nothing actually happens in it for five hundred pages! After a few episodes of this prolonged rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick, I started skimming those passages, waiting for Miéville to get to the point.

A more serious problem for me as a character-driven reader, is that the people in The Scar range from unsympathetic to downright nasty. Bellis is very credibly drawn as a self-involved, humorless misanthrope, so most of her interactions with others are understandably brief and unpleasant. Silas, the other most prominent point of view, is even more unpalatable. Only a few minor characters (such as prisoner Tanner Sack and his young friend, Shekel) have much in the way of redeeming qualities, and for me it wasn't enough to balance the grim situation and escalating, graphic violence.

The epic scope of this drama also obscures the fact that the protagonists are not driving the story. For much of the book, Bellis is a helpless observer, and neither she nor Silas have any immediate human dilemma to engage the reader's empathy. As the piles of corpses mounted, Bellis sneered, and the subplot snoozed along, I found myself putting the book down more often.

Miéville's vivid world-building and his clever, coherent use of ancient technology from medieval alchemy to the age of steam give this novel a distinct whiff of SF. But using my infallible genre-categorizing method ("if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck..."), I'd label it as Fantasy.

Nevertheless, I do recommend The Scar to both SF and Fantasy readers. Miéville's stunning vision is worth a look, even if you're not up for the entire 640 pages.

Copyright © 2003 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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