Do you like pirates? Not sophisticated swashbucklers or gorgeous heroes on the high seas, but people who are both murderers and visionaries, daring and repulsive, fiercely individual outlaws banding together in a complex patchwork society? That’s China Miéville for you. The Scar, the second novel in his Bas-Lag Cycle, is – for the most part – a grand read. It’s got its flaws in terms of the plot, but many characters are fascinating and the worldbuilding is spectacular.
Bellis Coldwine, a linguist, has to leave the city of New Crobuzon in a hurry after the events of the previous novel, Perdido Street Station. She boards a ship, but matters go from bad to worse after the ship is seized by pirates. It’s clear from the start that these pirates are far from the dashing figures of legend, since they cold-bloodedly murder both the captain and first mate, but they spare the lives of the crew and passengers, who are assimilated into the pirate city of Armada.
Armada is one of the most fascinating places I’ve read about. Made from hundreds of ships lashed together with chains and bridges, it has its own economy (a library, factories, a market, and even a park) and political system, since it’s divided into ridings with various governors . The city drifts on the high seas, stealing whatever it needs to thrive. But shortly after Bellis is press-ganged into its society, she discovers that the Lovers, the strange scarred rulers of Garwater Riding, have a new – and potentially devastating – purpose in mind for the city.
While Bellis secretly tries to contact New Crobuzon, another new recruit adapts to Armadan society more successfully. Tanner Sack was a prisoner on board the ship Bellis was traveling on, but he’s free in Armada. Even better, though, are the biological changes he undergoes. He wasn’t just punished by imprisonment but by Remaking, where a pair of giant tentacles was surgically grafted to his chest. In New Crobuzonian society, that made him a freak. In Armada, this makes him useful, after he decides to take the Remaking all the way and become amphibian (with a wonderfully written description of this process).
But as he’s swimming far beneath the surface of Armada, he finds that some of the ships have massive underwater chains and barbed hooks designed to hold a very, very large creature.
The pacing at the start of the story is fairly slow, since Bellis has nothing to do except feel glumly superior to her fellow passengers. But once she’s on Armada, I found the book unputdownable. There’s intrigue and betrayal, a naval battle, a terrifying underwater encounter in a bathyscape, and an island of anophelii (humanoid mosquitoes) who are all that remain of the Malarial Queendom. My favorite part of Armada were the vampir who rule Dry Fall Riding, whose seat of power is a ship that harnesses moonlight to sail, and who are as far from romantic as the pirates are.
Much as I enjoyed The Scar, though, the end fizzled out in terms of a certain buildup without a payoff. On the whole, though, the plot is absorbing. At one point I realized the narrative had switched from past to present tense, but I hadn’t noticed it happen because I’d been so caught up in a battle. None of the main characters end up happy, but that’s only to be expected from a Miéville novel, and the worldbuilding more than makes up for it. I’m just disappointed that there’s only one more book in the Bas-Lag Cycle – this world deserves a dozen.