** Update: Since reading this, I have read "The City and The City", which I thought was MUCH better (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/396185571) and then "Embassytown", which was fantastic (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/396183492). This review stands as my reaction to reading it, though I now think it probably does Mieville an injustice.
A very hard book to rate because it is so inconsistent in plot, pace, language and even genre. It could possibly be turned into a good book, but it needs a lot of work to achieve that. On the evidence of this book, I can only conclude that Mieville is not a very good writer.
The weird fantasy cum steampunk story concerns a floating pirate city (made up of stolen vessels lashed together) and particularly three characters kidnapped on their way to settle a new land: a 15 year cabin boy, a remade slave and a translator needing to start a new life. Once in the city, there are power struggles between rulers, particularly over a grand, vague and probably dangerous plan to harness unknown powers emanating from a rift in the planet (the eponymous “scar”).
It opens with a commentary about sea creatures and landscapes that could be lifted from the Discovery Channel – until mention of a he-cray with a hunting squid. But that’s OK because Meiville is quirky.
Very little happens in the first third of the book, but it’s saved by some wonderfully vivid descriptions of extraordinary lifeforms and the architecture of the floating city (tree silhouettes “wetly inked onto the clouds”; “the deck’s periscopic cowls crooned like dolorous flutes”; a man “crippled with the understanding of his own inadequacy”; a vampire’s moonship being “opulent and unwelcoming” and “urgent” bonhomie from dockside pubs). There are even some funny things (bureaucratic pirates) even though it isn’t a funny book.
But as the plot picks up, the structure and language fall apart: minor niggles from earlier become more pronounced and new problems arise. However, I'm putting the examples in spoiler tags because although I want to keep them for my own reference, I've since revised my opinion of Mieville:
• There is very little back story, even for the main characters and people/creatures are mostly described in isolation (no mention of family structures, and only a couple of mentions of children), so they feel flimsy.
• In places the narrative is quite confusing, especially when after pages of not much happening, there is suddenly a lot of poorly explained action.
• For all the vivid description of some things, there were many others that I couldn’t really picture or understand.
• As well as the main narrative, there are numerous interludes: letters and first person monologues, which just seem a gimmicky cop-out for filling in a bit of background.
• The first part is moderately realistic (Shawshank came to mind at one point), but about half way through, magic becomes more evident and there are shades of Harry Potter (invisibility, grindylows) and Hitchhiker’s (possibility mining).
• There are 5 words he consistently spells oddly, for no apparent reason: chymical, seawryms, wyrd, elytricity and vampir.
• The swearing is usually too sudden, graphic and out of character, and similarly with the only two sex scenes – more reminiscent of a pubescent trying to shock. I was not offended by the words, but by their awkwardness.
• He uses the word “puissant” ludicrously and distractingly often.
• There are some egregious phrases, such as “the Brucolac was leaned over”, “all of you wouldn’t have died” and “I can’t hardly imagine”; awful metaphors such as “watching his influence spread like antibiotic in diseased flesh”; tenses skipping all over the place, even within a paragraph, and carelessness when a crucial statue is suddenly referred to as a “statuette” and then a “statue” again – all on the same page.
Yet there are a few glorious passages, particularly concerning the joyous liberation of becoming literate and of becoming amphibious, as well as some interesting ideas near the end about alternative realities and parallel universes (“reality rippled about him”). If only there had been more of that.
I don't understand why he is a lauded as much as he is or how come he teaches creative writing at Warwick University. Well, I suppose his writing is unarguably "creative", just not very good.
At 795 pages it is easily the longest bad book I've read!