Riding the Crest of a Wave

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Review of 'The Scar', China Miéville, Macmillan £17.99

Fantasy is one of the most popular forms of fiction today. A visit to any bookshop will reveal row after row of fantasy novels, mostly adventure stories but with a growing comedy section as well (mostly written by Terry Pratchett). The great bulk of these novels are set in some sort of romanticised feudal society where good is battling against evil, the lower classes know their place and magic works. There are elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons, princes and princesses, wizards and, inevitably, those most maligned of fictional creatures, orcs, the despised proletariat of conservative fantasy. This is the sub-Tolkien realm of formula writing, conservative with a small 'c', that lulls the imagination rather than stimulates it, escapist literature in the worse sense of the word.

This particular tradition of conservative fantasy has not gone unchallenged, however. Michael Moorcock, a prolific anarchist writer, has for many years contested this literary terrain, as well as finding time to heap abuse on the likes of Bilbo Baggins and the rest of the Kulaks--oops! I mean Hobbits--who have overrun the fantastic. He situates himself in a rival fantasy tradition, a subversive tradition that looks back not to Tolkien, but to Mervyn Peake and the Gormenghast novels. China Miéville stands in this tradition.

'The Scar' is a return to the world of his earlier novel, 'Perdido Street Station', that won the British Fantasy and the Arthur C Clarke awards last year. Its central protagonist, Bellis Coldwine, only had a peripheral part in that marvellous tale, but now we join her fleeing for her life from the city of New Crobuzon as the authorities 'disappear' everyone connected with the events of the previous book. She takes a ship into reluctant exile, accompanying a cargo of Remade convicts, one of Miéville's most memorable inventions. Among the convicts is the redoubtable Tanner Sack, a working man 'remade' with tentacles.

The ship is captured by pirates, the ship's officers are slaughtered, the Remades set free, and the passengers and crew conscripted into the population of the great floating republic of Armada, a seaborne city made up of hundreds of ships captured over centuries, welded and bound together, the home of thousands of people of every species and kind. Armada is without a doubt one of the most remarkable creations in modern fantasy literature, a creation that puts to shame the shallow royalism of most contemporary fantasy.

For Tanner Sack, Armada means freedom and the opportunity to realise his potential, to remake himself as he wants, but for Bellis Coldwine, temporary exile from New Crobuzon has now become permanent, something she will not accept. As Armada's rulers begin their great project of harnessing the forces that are loose in the Scar, Bellis and Tanner both become unwittingly involved in the conspiracy to bring Armada down.

The quality of Miéville's writing is often breathtaking, his skill at characterisation unsurpassed, but in many ways even more remarkable is his sheer inventiveness, the genius with which he creates and populates his fantastic world. The scabmettlers, the gengris, the anophelii, are all wonderful inventions that give the book a richness that lifts it above the great bulk of contemporary fantasy. Uther Doul, the brooding enigmatic strongman, loyal follower of the self mutilating lovers, possessor of the Possible Sword, would keep most contemporary fantasy writers going for trilogy after trilogy. Here he is but one of a number of characters contesting the fate of Armada. And in the end it is a tale about power and wealth, freedom and comradeship.

Without any doubt, China Miéville is one of the giants of contemporary fantasy literature. His only serious rival at the moment is Mary Gentle, another fine writer well worth a look. If you enjoyed 'Perdido Street Station', rest assured 'The Scar', for my money, is even better. We have not yet seen the best of China Miéville.