Notes on The Scar by China Mieville

To start on a positive note, a couple of things that I liked about The Scar:

  • Armada itself, a dreamy, romantic fantasy of a floating pirate city, complete with pubs, libraries, a hunted district, and a dolphin policeman;
  • the espionage intrigue, with deceptions, misguided motivations, and changing political alliances;
  • and Tanner Sack, the ex-convict who remakes himself into an aquatic creature. Tanner Sack was the only character I liked, the only one I understood.

And now the longer list of things that annoyed me:

  • The patchwork narrative with chapters, paragraphs, even individual sentences written in different tenses, from different points of view, with different font styling;
  • The world-building extravaganza. I appreciate imaginative fantasy but I find there is a line that many fantasy writers cross. Once you have the cactus-people, and the lobster-people, and the scarab-people — the mosquito-people feel obsolete. The same goes for inventing names. There are better ways of showing imagination than by pummelling the reader with lists of places, peoples, gods, weapons, and events that in many cases remain meaningless throughout the novel;
  • The insistence on everything being mysterious, powerful, dangerous, and far away. When all the lands are far away, mysterious, and dangerous, then they all seem a little less so, by the power of that commonality;
  • The deus-ex-machinas: all those mysterious components, warriors of superhuman skills, and powerful artefacts, that just make things happen;
  • Being told rather than shown, especially when it came to the main character. Throughout the book I was told how intelligent and composed Bellis was, but on the rare occasions that I actually got to hear her words, she didn’t sound particularly intelligent.

I can’t shake the feeling that, long as it was, I read an outline of a novel, a set of notes that the author made for himself when planning the book. Partially it was due to that patchwork narrative and all the bits written in parentheses. Partially it was due to the ‘telling’.

For example, Mieville decided that he wanted the main protagonist to be sly. Ok, that’s cool. But he never actually made her act or talk slyly. He’d write:

They strolled through the wooded boat, past reclaimed funnels and bulkheads, while Bellis fed Johannes’s resentment in a coy and sly interrogation, learning things, piece by piece.

Now, I want to read what it is that she said in that sly interrogation, how did she learn those things, so that I could judge for myself wether she really was sly or not. But I never got to do it. That scene of sly interrogation never happened.

Or later:

She would not coquette, but she engineered enough of a dynamic that he must know.

Oh, did she? Come on Mieville, show me how she did it, show me!

Or that scene when the Lovers have to address the whole city and convince people to follow them — I’m told “they did an impressive job” but all I get from their actual speech is two sentences. It’s like a placeholder, a note: come back to it later, write an impressive speech.

These are just a few examples but sadly the whole book is afflicted with such ‘telling’ placeholders. Lazy writing?

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