Yes, it’s time for my monthly confession that I’ve posted nothing about what I’m reading. I always intend to remember to post about books, and I never do. Now on with the show.
China Mieville is one of the big names in fantasy to emerge in the last decade. Needless to say, he remains a complete unknown outside of the fantasy ghetto. Nobody who reads, writes, or reviews serious literature would have anything to do with him. But among the hardcore fanboys, few authors command more respect. He burst on the scene with Perdido Street Station, set in the fictional universe of Bas-Lag, and followed it up with The Scar, set in the sample world but in a very different part of that world. While Perdido Street Station is set in the vast and teeming but stationary metropolis called New Crobuzon, The Scar is set in the floating city of Armada.
Mieville is the leader of the subgenre known as “urban fantasy”. Like most genre terms it’s not clearly defined, but it clearly fits what Mieville writes. In Mieville book’s the main characters are the cities, rather than the people. In Perdido, New Crobuzon oozes menace and atmosphere. In The Scar, Armada is carefully established as a physical reality. One believes in these cities because Mieville plumbs their depths and exposes all the details, because he describes countless neighborhoods in each one and digs into the social, economic, and political fabric. As far as urban landscapes go, they have no equal in fantasy.
Mieville also stands out for his stunning imagintion as applied to new creatures and races. While many fantasy authors struggle to come up with a single imaginative concept, Mieville spins out new ones as if he could simply pop them out of a machine. Perdido gave us walking cactuses, human bodies with big beetle heads, “remade” persons with extra limbs attached as criminal penalties, frog-like Vodyanoi, and more. The Scar adds in human-sized mosquitoes with insatiable appetites and plenty of other such monstrosities. Many of these charming add-ons would be worthy of a book of their own, and we can only hope that Mieville will return to them at some future point.
The last good point is that Mieville can actually create a good plot, something which sets him aside from many other urban fantasy practitioners. In The Scar there are big mysteries to drive the plot forward and adequate explanations for those mysteries. The pacing is good and there are a decent number of surprises.
Own the downside, The Scar is laced with constant profanity, which is not only unpleasant but often is used as a substitute for characterization. I wish authors (and screeenwriters) could understand that loading a character’s vocabulary with endless s###’s and f###’s does not make that person gritty, believable, or tough. Violence is frequent but gore is usually not excessive, though one scene with the aforementioned mosquito people may go a little too far for some people. Overall, though, Mieville’s imagination and vision win out over those flaws and make The Scar a highly recommended winner.