The Scar, by China Mieville, is a sequel of sorts to the dark steampunk fantasy Perdido Street Station, which I have reviewed previously. It’s set in Bas-Lag, the same world as PSS, and we learn at one point that one of the main characters once had a romantic relationship with one of the characters from PSS. But The Scar could be read as a stand-alone novel quite easily. If anything, it’s even darker than the first novel, and takes us on a grand adventure involving a hidden pirate city, an island inhabited by ravenous mosquito-people, giant sea creatures, weird magicks, and almost more riddles and conspiracies than you can shake a Possible Sword at.
The Terpsichoria is a ship from New Crobuzon carrying passengers to a Crobuzonian colony city across the Swollen Ocean. Bellis Coldwine is one of the passengers, a prim and unemotional linguist who’s leaving New Crobuzon unwillingly and under duress. What exactly happened to her to cause her to leave the city will be revealed as the novel develops. Also on the ship is Tanner Sack, a prisoner and a Remade–as punishment in New Crobuzon, criminals are subjected to bizarre surgeries combining animal and mechanical parts with human bodies; in Tanner’s case, he has two tentacles implanted in his chest. Shekel is a teenage member of the crew who befriends Tanner. Finally, there’s Johannes Tearfly, a naturalist who specializes in weird underwater fauna. En route, the Terpsichoria is intercepted by a fleet of pirates who kill most of the crew and passengers, taking only those with useful skills, as well as the ship itself, to the floating city of Armada.
Armada is a pirate city made up of hundreds of captured ships, lashed and bridged together to form a single urban area. It is divided into neighborhoods called ridings, each with its own character and form of government. Everything you’d find in a regular city can also be found in Armada: apartments, factories, parks, bars and restaurants, stores, even a few farms, all contained on the decks or in the hulls of the various ships.
Bellis finds herself working in the library in Garwater, whose rulers, the Lovers, have made Garwater into the richest and most influential of the ridings. Bellis loathes Armada and yearns to return to New Crobuzon, resenting the fact that residents can never leave, lest they reveal the location of Armada to outside powers that would seek to destroy the pirate city. Tanner and Shekel, on the other hand, room together in a poorer area, but love their new home. Tanner in particular appreciates that his former status as a prisoner means nothing in Armada, and that his tentacles give him an advantage in his new job as an underwater laborer, helping to maintain the keels of the ships. For his part, Johannes Tearfly is immediately employed by a highly-placed research team that uses his obscure knowledge for a secretive project that the Lovers and other city leaders are extremely interested in.
Armada’s rulers let the librarians know they are searching for a list of books on certain esoteric subjects. When Bellis finds one of the books misshelved in the library, she uses her linguist skills to recognize it as written in the rare language of High Kettai–currently used only by a species of humanoid mosquitos on a distant island. She is soon enlisted to join a trip to the dangerous island to help translate with the (literally) blood-thirsty natives. Silas Fennec, a New Crobuzon spy hiding in the city, gets in contact with her to carry a secret message to the island’s inhabitants.
The more Bellis learns about the mysterious project Armada’s rulers are involved in, the more she worries that they are interfering in natural forces that could result in danger to the entire city. But how can she stop them, when she doesn’t even fully understand what they’re up to? What connection does the project have to her home city of New Crobuzon? And how can she use the various people she knows–Tanner, Shekel, Johannes, and Silas–to piece together the mystery?
My description of the book hardly does it justice. It’s really chock full of rumors and conspiracies, bizarre sexual predilections (this is not a children’s fantasy book!), strange species and professions. I could have mentioned Uther Doul, the warrior with the Possible Sword which can use every possible stroke with each swing of a blade (how can you fight a sword that not only counters your move, but every move you could possibly make?). Or the Scabmettlers, a species with blood that congeals into an iron-hard form, so that they form their armor by cutting themselves and molding the blood around their bodies. Or the weird, and frankly disgusting, magic totem that Silas uses to hide himself around Armada.
Really, Perdido Street Station and The Scar together make up one of the most original, most intriguing fantasy series I have read. I haven’t even yet gotten to the third novel in the series, Iron Council, but I feel safe in saying the New Crobuzon series is one of the best fantasy series ever–easily in my top five. As I said, the series is decidedly adult in tone, but for someone ready for a mature, so dark it borders on horrific (but doesn’t quite cross that line) fantasy novel, I recommend The Scar as highly as possible.