Complex book, this. Big, as well. In fact, it’s big and clever. It’s a baroque and convoluted tale, set in a baroque and convoluted world, with an extensive cast of fascinating characters, which are either three dimensional, or built around one dimension so compelling the lack of another two is entirely incidental. Miéville’s powers of invention and extrapolation are prodigious, and he uses them to explore some weighty intellectual/ existential themes. Free will is a particular concern here, and The Scar approaches it from multiple angles, in a kind of pincer movement. There is some unpleasant behaviour in the book, some terrible violence, and acts of immense cruelty, but this is not a moralistic work, and Miéville seems to be a pretty empathic person: there are no evil characters, no great dark enemy, no plot to end the world. It’s still about as epic as fantasy gets, however.
Miéville’s world combines multiple intelligent species, of diverse morphologies, ubiquitous and powerful magic, Victorian era technology which interfaces with the magic in an integrated way, and widespread use of technological body modifications (involving both biological and mechanical, steam driven, additions). His social and political milieus are sophisticated, complex and well realised, and his plots are fantastic.
It’s not perfect: I had a few issues suspending my disbelief in respect of some aspects of the setting. Miéville’s approach is eclectic, and his world sometimes seems as stitched together as his Remade characters. This is partly due to the sheer diversity of intelligent species in play, and partly due to a sense of linguistic incoherence. I never get a sense from the names of places and characters that there is a real linguistic hinterland behind them; this might be a trivial issue in a lesser work, but a world as nuanced as this seems to me to deserve better. The English language is a real presence, particularly in the culture of New Crobuzon, and no explanation, convincing or otherwise, is given for this. The effect is to make the world curiously ahistorical. The English language can’t exist without its history, and if English is a part of your world, so are Beowulf and Shakespeare: a culture can’t be assembled from disparate pieces of history, social practice and language, because all of these things are articulations of each other.
Similarly, some of the characters do not seem to be rooted in a coherent cultural context. Some are, and a few are incredibly well drawn, their subjectivities constructed from the social materials that Miéville posits and no other. There are some major exceptions, however, including the protagonist, Bellis Coldwine, who shows every sign of coming from twentieth century Earth.
These reservations aside, this book stands head and shoulders above most works of fantasy fiction, and indeed above most works of fiction. I have some differences with China Miéville regarding the requirements of a convincing fantasy setting, but he is a breathtakingly imaginative, audacious, and technically virtuosic writer, and The Scar is a truly brilliant book.