After reading China Mieville's startlingly perceptive second novel, Perdido Street Station, continuing on to his third, The Scar was a given. There were questions to be answered. Could the writer, who had created an amazing combination of a simultaneously backward and futuristic world in the earlier book, maintain both his creativity and momentum in a new effort? Would some of the remarkable characters from the earlier book reappear? Would the protagonist be as fascinating and annoying as the memorable scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin from PSS? Those questions and more were answered when I closed the cover to the 600-plus page speculative fiction novel The Scar earlier this week.
The Scar is set in the same world as Perdido Street Station, but it never touches ground in the queen city of New Crobuzon. That is because this microcosm is afloat. Armada is a collection of hundreds of pirate ships housing thousands of citizens in a traveling city. The protagonist of the novel, Bellis Coldwine, becomes an unwilling citizen of Armada when she is kidnapped and impressed into its citizenry, along with other crew and passengers on a ship she was taking to the colonies. Coldwine, a translator of Kettai texts, briefly appeared in Perdido Street Station as a former girlfriend of der Grimnebulin. She is on the ship, the Terpsichoria, because Grimnebulin's associates have begun to disappear in the aftermath of his clash with New Crobuzon's government and its subsequent manhunt for him. Coldwine hopes to flee to a faraway colony and stay there until the government loses interest. Her ship, which she has bartered her services as a translator of Cray to in return for passage, is intercepted within weeks of setting sail.
Her new 'government' is like none known before. The Lovers, leaders of one of the more powerful districts in Armada, also dominate the city as a whole. The rivals for leadership include the Brucolac, a vampire chief who taxes the citizens of his district in blood, a libertarian to whom everything is for sell and the usual councils of various leanings. The Lovers have plans for Armada. Big plans. Coldwine becomes entangled in their schemes when she proves to be the best linguist of Kettai available, a language The Lovers need to go forward with an important plan. She is elevated into the elite for a time and allowed to leave Armada with an expedition to a dangerous island. Her ability to translate is further tapped afterward. But, Coldwine, for all her intelligence and nerve, is merely a pawn in more powerful characters' games. She will eventually fall even lower in Armada's hierarchy than she briefly rises.
Among the influential personages Coldwine becomes entangled with are Johannes Tearfly, a naturalist who is important to The Lovers' plan to improve Armada's mode of travel. Silas Fennec, a master spy who is an agent for New Crobuzon's government and needs to contact it desperately, also taps Coldwine as an accomplice. He promises to take her with him when he is rescued if she helps. The Lovers' bodyguard and chief warrior, Uther Doul, takes an intense interest in Coldwine, too. He seemingly makes her his confidant. Only near the end of the narrative does she begin to wonder why.
Mieville has created two other viewpoint characters, including Fennec, though the focus is on Coldwine. The third is Tanner Sack, a Remade man who was being sent to the colonies as a slave when the Terpsichoria was intercepted. The Remade are criminals who have been reshaped biologically or mechanically as part of their punishment. Tanner's transformation is the seeded growth of tentacles from his chest. He appreciates his rescue as much as Coldwine loathes her capture. Despite the differences between the blue collar laborer and the aloof intellectual, they unite in a plan to warn New Crobuzon of an upcoming attack by its enemies they will come to regret. That plan is Fennec's. But, though he is unaware of it, the spy has miscalculated the enemy he is attempting to thwart. Their quarry is himself and they are much, much closer than he thinks.
I wouldn't say The Scar is less a creative accomplishment than Perdido Street Station. But, it is different. Mieville has turned his attention to not just creating a world, but designing rules for it and investigating the connundrums of what leadership and government are. At times, The Scar bogs down because of the need to elucidate how a city of pirate ships would be organized and operate. It does not help matters that The Lovers, a man and woman who try to merge into each other through ritual violence, are not convincing as charismatic leaders thousands of people would follow. Bellis Coldwine's situation poses the question: Does an individual really have much control over her circumstances if they are circumscribed and she is subject to manipulation by others? The most significant fact the protagonist must mold her behavior around is that neither she, nor all but a relative handful of its citizens, can ever leave Armada. They are citizens with certain rights who live their lives unmolested unless there is cause. But, they are also captives. The schemes of the powerful around her frustrate Coldwine's own plans so much that by the end of the book she wonders if she has any personal power at all. These philosophical concerns give The Scar a weight the rollicking Perdido Street Station lacked.
What is The Scar? The question is not answered until very late in the book. The short answer is the scar is the place were chaos has already struck, devastating what was before, but opening a wealth of possibilities. The Scar is either the Holy Grail or Pandora's Box.