The Scar

by China Miéville

Cover image

Series: New Crobuzon #2
Publisher: Del Ray
Copyright: 2001
Printing: July 2002
ISBN: 0-345-44438-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 638

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I'm not really in the target audience for this book. It's a dark and grimy mix of urban fantasy and the dirtier side of steampunk, dealing largely with ships and sailing, and generally the sort of fantasy that I don't normally like.

That just ended up highlighting just how good of a book this is.

I can't say for sure that it should have won the Hugo award this year, since I still haven't read two of the other nominees (Kiln People and the winner Hominids), but it's far and away the best of the ones that I've read.

The Scar is the story of a native of New Crobuzon (the setting of the earlier Perdido Street Station) who flees the city by ship, a ship that is captured by pirates and pulled in to become part of the huge floating salvage city Armada. One that is being driven by its enigmatic leaders towards a dark adventure.

There are many reasons to like this book. The characterization is detailed, ambiguous, and complex. The world background is deep and compelling without being dumped on the reader; it is revealed well in bursts, hints, and references without feeling artificial or forced. The cultures seen are both believable and fascinating. But more than anything else, it captures the core of speculative fiction: a sense of wonder.

Now, this book doesn't take wide-eyed pleasure in anything. It's dark, hard, and tarnished, with mold growing around the corners and years of grease and dirt on its deck. But underneath that sense of a hard, dirty, and difficult life (rather more faithful to Victorian times than most steampunk), there is a sense of the Larger, the Greater... of vast secrets and powers moving through the world that are both dangerous and controllable with huge effort and cost. It is this sense of exploration and the quest for understanding, the desire to grapple with the unknown of whatever sort, that to me characterizes speculative fiction and unites the worlds of fantasy and science fiction, and it's remarkably well-executed here.

There are a few niggling things to not like here. I found the main character sympathetic, but it's a bit hard to wholly get behind anyone at the beginning. The constant feeling of grime isn't particularly to my liking, although I stopped minding it after a while. And the ending isn't quite as satisfying as I hoped it would be, although still quite good. But these are minor points next to the quality of the writing.

Highly recommended, even if this isn't your genre. I'll be buying more books by this author.

Followed by Iron Council.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2003-11-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21