Before I go on, let me say that this is an incredibly difficult novel to review. The complexities of this world would take a book about the size of The Scar to review The Scar. I'll do my best! The Scar describes a world that is very unlike ours. Disturbingly however there are a number of similarities to our own world of past and present (and future?). Bas-Lag is the world of The Scar. It's a Nautical world of multiple species, and multiple different kinds of individuals in each species. Among the many nations of this world is New Crobuzon, a culture of Humans, and "Remade" (essentially criminals punished by having their bodies genetically or mechanically enhanced to make them better slave laborers... think a combination of low-tech Borg from Star Trek and the Splicers from Batman Beyond). Bellis Coldwine is a Linguist and citizen of New Crobuzon. She takes a job off site to escape some temporary political intrigue (of the John Ashcroft sort)... the plan is to be gone for a few weeks and return to the home she is loyal to!
Unfortunately another nation state has ideas of its own. Armada, the Pirate city, is in essence a five-mile flotilla of captured ships. Each pirated ship becomes a new "riding" within Armada, and as the population grows, so does the Landscape of the mighty city. Armadan economy is based around Piracy, as the city was founded, once you or the ship you're on becomes Armadan, you are Armadan for life. And because Armada moves under its own accord, it's impossible to find, so a rescue is a pipe dream at best! The Armadan's next target is the Terpsichoria, the ship Bellis Coldwine intended to make her escape on!
From this point on Bellis and the rest of the Crew (at least those who survived the attack) are press ganged into the service of "The Lovers," the leaders of Armada. Armada is a vastly different world than that which Bellis was used to. For one thing, each and every citizen is considered an equal under the lovers... where the remade have been considered last-class citizens in the old world, on Armada they are equal to their former captors (whether the captors like this or not). Bellis insists upon going home despite the odds, and she makes it her purpose in life to find a way home by any means necessary with any allies she can find! Willing to join in this quest is Silas Fennec, who just might have an agenda of his own.
Besides the humans and the remade there are also a myriad of other races on Armada, including (but not limited to) Scabmettlers (humanoids with armor made of Scabs), Cactacae (cactus people), and Vampir (Vampires, obviously). Along the travels, the Armadans meet not only the parent species of each of the patchwork races of the floating city, but also a Mosquito people whose scientists hold the key to both Armada's future, and Bellis Coldwine's Salvation!
As you can see, The Scar had its fair share of groups, both racial and political, so it's an easy guess that this novel is a little top-heavy with the characters! This is no War and Peace, but Miéville keeps a lot of supporting characters developed throughout the novel to both make things clearer, and to keep you guessing! Luckily he does develop the characters well, and does a remarkable job of subtley reminding you who each supporting character is. One thing to make clear is that this is a remarkably dense novel. I never claimed to be a speed reader, but it took me a terribly long time to get through this pea-soup of a fog Miéville painted before my eyes! It's true that The Scar is a little overlong, but it's not overlong at the end as many Novels are. Miéville doesn't seem to have any confusion about how to end this book... just how to begin it. The first third of the book in retrospect feels like just a careful set up for the rest of the novel without much of a flow to it. I can't say that the first third is nonessential, it's just a little more dense than it had to be, and hard to get into. Once you break past this opening (and it's worth remembering what you read) The Scar becomes incredibly engrossing, and about as hard to put down as it originally was to keep picking up!
Aside from the overlong and over-dense opening, this is an incredible book! It's exciting, thought provoking, and has just about the best single action sequence I have ever read in any novel! This is all without ever truly slipping into a gratuitous path of mindlessness that would be easy to do in a surreal novel like this one! There are also several instances in which Miéville might be using allegory to tell his tale! I put this in for those who read the book and might ask about this later. It's possible, especially considering his background, but I'm not making a limiting box to put The Scar in! If it's there, he handles it well; if it's coincidental then it's no less a great book!
Though decidedly not an "Action" story, there is some incredible action to be found in the novel. From Sea Battles, to Ring Matches and even a few supernatural strife moments I would be a villain for spoiling for you, Miéville knows action. He also doesn't let the Action get silly, or detract from the character development. Aside from the enigmatic duality of the Lovers (the psychology of whom could probably fill up their own novel), there are also some amazing characters like Krüach Aum, the incredible Uther Doul, who has to be read to be "believed," and the Vampir leader known only as the Brucolac!
One thing you can't say about this book is that it's derivative in any way. Sure some elements creep in which betray some of Miéville's influences, but the plot and the progression are unlike anything I have ever read before. There is even a Douglas Adams-esque experimentation with the possible/impossible, probable/improbable (partially surrounding Uther Doul) that puts a brand new (and far, far less humorous) bend on the concept!
So why not a full four or five stars? Let me try to be fair here... Miéville has been an open critic of Tolkien. While I am a Tolkien fan I don't feel any need to defend him against detractors, and I feel like Miéville has more than earned his right to criticize. My issue here is that many of Miéville's complaints about Tolkien are observations that one can make about The Scar!
Miéville calls Tolkien cold and Wagnerian. Perhaps... but is he as dense as the first half of Miéville's own novel? He also criticizes Tolkien for using stock races and monsters that were already clichés. In actuality are Dwarves any more clichéd than Vampires? Is the Avanc truly more original than the Balrog? Is an Ent a less original idea than a Scabmettler? Could be, but I submit it's in the eye of the beholder.
Now, wait a second here... please don't think that I am downgrading The Scar's rating because of something that Miéville said completely separate from his text. On the contrary, I read what he said, and respected it, and like any respected thought, it caused me to pay closer attention to that which I was reading... in this case, I was still reading The Scar when I read Miéville's words! I don't believe I am being unfair here, just using an author's own Litmus test to judge his work. My opinions!
That said, Miéville's The Scar is certainly one of the best novels I have ever read, including those much beloved works by J.R.R. Tolkien!
As to the Novel's end... I found myself reading the Coda very slowly as much to absorb as much as possible as to not let the experience of The Scar end prematurely. I shan't ruin the end for anyone, but I can say there are really two endings. One is the culmination of a protagonist's journey... the other is not a crashing ending, but more of a whisper... more of an understanding of the events that have come before! The ending was truly worthwhile, and I found myself feeling the satisfaction I felt at the end of Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard. Somehow on the last page I felt that we, the readers, were actually the possible friend that Bellis was looking for all along. Read the book. On the last page you'll understand!
Three and one half stars for China Miéville's The Scar! I'd give it a perfect score, but I fear not everyone will get this as I have. And I don't know that enough people will be able to get into this novel when starting from the beginning. You need the beginning to understand the rest! If you can get past the first several chapters (which are still good in spite of their density) you're in for one of the best treats of your Novel Reading life! Weird is good... if you can Wield the Weird with wry wit! Miéville can!