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Literature / The Scar

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”Scars are not injuries, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”

China Miéville's second book in the Bas Lag Cycle, first published in 2002. Despite being a stand-alone novel, it takes place immediately after the events of Perdido Street Station.

In the aftermath of the Plague of Nightmares, Bellis Coldwine, a brilliant linguist, knows that it will just be a matter of time before New Crobuzon's terrifying Secret Police drag her away for a questioning that she will undoubtedly never return from. Bellis negotiates her way on to the Terpsichoria, a ship heading to escape to the colony Nova Esperium, acting as a translator to the captain when liaising with the Salkrikaltor Cray.

Shortly after this meeting, the ship is captured by pirates from the floating nation of Armada. All of the people aboard Bellis' ship are press-ganged into joining Armada and integrated into its community.

Despite quickly learning the local language, Bellis becomes homesick for the very place that threatened to kill her. In her attempts to return home, she discovers secrets about Armada that challenge the millenia-long peace that the nation has enjoyed and threaten to destroy Armada itself.

The Scar provides examples of:

  • Alien Geometries: The grindylow Magus Fin allows its user to interact strangely with regular space. Fennec uses it extensively to sneak invisibly through Armada and breeze through its most heavily locked and guarded sections.
  • Alternative Calendar: Armada uses a different calendar than the one used in New Crobuzon, which in turn, is still different from the one used on Earth.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Subverted. The Grindylows are set up like this, but it's revealed they are merely zealous defenders of hearth and home. Doesn't make the measures they take to get the job done any less horrifying, though.
  • Ammo-Using Melee Weapon: When Uther Doul's Possible Sword is activated, each swing passes through every path that it could potentially have taken. It's Lost Technology and he doesn't have any way to replace the batteries, so he only turns it on for seriously important fights.
  • Amplified Animal Aptitude: Dolphins are much smarter than their Earth counterparts. They hold jobs and give themselves names.
  • Artifact of Doom: Silas steals a statue from the grindylow which grants him mysterious powers, yet has the unfortunate side effect of slowly turning him into a Fish Person.
  • Attack of the Monster Appendage: The avanc's anatomy is unknown even to the researchers who summoned it. Only a section of its back is ever shown, although the shape of its harness suggests it has at least one limb. Hedrigall's story at the end claims it has a head also, but it's unclear whether his description is A) a lie, or B) from a might-have-been alternate history in which the avanc might've looked different than the factual one.
  • Badass Bookworm: Uther Doul — despite being possibly the most deadly thing alive, he is an archaeologist, the authority on the history of the Ghosthead Empire, and a master of probability theory.
  • Bizarrchitecture: Armada is an entire metropolis built atop lashed-together sea vessels of all sizes and designs.
  • Bizarre Sexual Dimorphism: The Male and Female Mosquito people share roughly the same differences as their tiny flying counterparts. With the exception that Mosquito Men don't have wings and are around the same size as the women.
  • Blood Sport: A very literal example with the ritual fights of the scabmettlers. They drink a special herbal concoction, dip knives into the liquid and begin to cut themselves in intricate patterns. The unique physiology of scabmettlers makes the blood congeal quickly (but not immediately, as it would without the herbs) into a form of elaborate armour to enhance each individual scabmettler's style of fighting.
  • Bloody Murder: The scabmettlers are of a race whose blood clots extremely quickly. Before going into battle, they cut themselves in certain ritualistic pattern, and the results blood flows harden into armor and weapons. Blessed with Suck to some extent, since they need to medicate themselves constantly or risk spontaneous clots that will turn them into statues.
  • Body Horror:
    • While the Remade have enough Body Horror for all three books, Tanner Sack gets a special mention for willingly getting himself remade a second time to make himself amphibious.
    • The anophelii suck all the fluids right out of a body, and are able to shrivel a person into a papery mummy in a minute flat. They also bloat up and become fat and bulgy as they do this.
    • The description of what Silas Fennec's Magus Fin-empowered saliva does to a person's flesh is the stuff of nightmares.
    • Absolutely everything about the grindylow. If even a tiny bit of what Silas says about the Gengris is true, this includes their architecture, somehow.
  • Break the Haughty: Bellis Coldwine, possessed of a contemptuous demeanor and somewhat of a surly Deadpan Snarker. She jots down snide remarks about most people she meets, looks down on most of them, and appears to be more than a little xenophobic—and that's before being press-ganged, whereupon she starts displaying some understandable resentment toward Armada.
  • The Chessmaster: Bellis realizes that Silas Fennec is one and hates him for it. At the end of the novel, she theorizes that Uther Doul might also be one.
  • Come to Gawk: The Brucolac is hung up atop a ship's mast and left there. Being a vampire, he is slowly dying of exposure to sunlight before he is finally taken down.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: Implied to be true for the living in High Cromlech, city of the dead. Uther Doul's mother had herself "put down" so she could be brought back as one of its unliving aristocracy.
  • Confusion Fu: Uther Doul has a probability-altering sword. It passes through all the paths it could potentially have taken with each swing, and he's taught himself a style inflected with randomness to maximize the effect.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Bellis was described briefly in Perdido Street Station as Isaac's lover before Lin, a brilliant linguist who had grown bored with Isaac's "rumbustiousness" and broken his heart.
    • The reason that Bellis has to flee New Crobuzon being The Plague of Nightmares. AKA the effects of five slake moths being loose in the city.
  • Cunning Linguist: Bellis fills this role on the ship, complete with being both cunning and unapproachable.
  • Devious Dolphins: Dolphins are an intelligent race in the setting. The main dolphin character in the book, and also the head of the underwater police of the floating city of Armada, is a vicious sadist named Bastard John.
  • Didn't See That Coming: The New Crobuzon fleet pays a high price for Fennec having overlooked the tugboats' potential as explosive ramships.
  • Difficult, but Awesome: Uther Doul's Probable Sword makes every possible cut on every stroke. If you are not a skilled swordsman, this will include the cuts that hit you. And if you are a skilled swordsman, the number of cuts it makes is greatly reduced. Uther trained hard to be good but not too good to get the most out of the sword’s effects.
  • Dungeon Punk: Thaumaturgy is the universe's form of magic, and just about everyone can use it to at least a small extent. Bellis uses it to boost her concentration when trying to learn a language.
  • Environmental Symbolism: The city of Armada is a congealed mass of ships, which is perfectly appropriate given that its inhabitants steal almost everything they need. Additionally, the vampire who rules one section lives in a freakish-looking ship that sails on moonlight.
  • Faceless Goons: The Militia, who do end up making an appearance in this book.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Silas Fennec is spirited away by the grindylow and never seen again. Given that they swam thousands of miles just to catch him, whatever they have planned is unlikely to be pleasant.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: While little of it is ever shown, Nova Esperium is almost certainly intended to be a stand-in for Australia.
  • Fish People: One deconstructed with a realistic portrayal. Tanner Sack has himself Remade to breathe water so as to be at home in the ocean. However, encountering the Grindylow shows him in no uncertain terms the difference between a real creature of the deep and a human being with gills and tentacles.
  • Foreshadowing: While reminiscing about New Crobuzon, Tanner Sack mentions a vagrant by the name of Spiral Jacobs, who would eventually go on to be a major character in Iron Council.
  • Gainax Ending: A large number of questions about the plot are deliberately left ambiguous in order to allow the reader to come up with his or her own conclusions.
  • Giant Equals Invincible: Averted, the gargantuan avanc slowly succumbs to infection after it gets injured by the grindylow. We don't actually see what weapons they'd used to damage it, but the lakeful of pus it emits while ailing is a definite sign that it's the infection, not the wounds themselves, that proves fatal.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Unlike Perdido Street Station. With the only possible exception of Silas Fennec, no one faction is portrayed as wholly evil. Uther Doul, the Lovers and the Brucolac all follows their different ideas of what is good for Armada; the Grindylows just wants to protect their home; the Anophelii are victims of their own nature; and New-Crobuzon Navy are simple soldiers following orders.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who can figure out where the Lovers sit on this scale, but damn do they ever.
  • Hazardous Water: Gigantic armoured sharks are not even close to being the worst things to be found in the sea of the Scar.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The Grindylow hunting Silas had been unable to find him in Armada, until Silas called down the New Crobuzon fleet to rescue him and destroy the city. They are able to follow the fleet right to him, with terrible consequences for Silas.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Uther Doul uses a sword with an attached "probability engine," which causes every strike he makes to be every possible strike he could have made. (Hence "improbable" may not be the word for it, but...)
  • Informed Loner: Hedrigall is described as being a loner many times, in spite of the fact that almost every named character in the books from Garwater is a friend of his.
  • Kaiju: The avanc is an unusual variant, as this gargantuan marine creature didn't destroy a city by stomping through it, but by dragging the floating city of Armada to its doom in the titular Scar. Or not.
  • Killer Rabbit: The head of Armada's underwater police force is a sadistic dolphin named Bastard John.
  • Kraken and Leviathan: The avanc.
  • Lovecraftian Superpower: The Grindylow statue grants several, along with requisite deformities brought on through use. Most immediately obvious is a disturbing corrosive spit ability, but it also grants users the ability to defy the rules of space.
  • A Magic Contract Comes with a Kiss: Not exactly a contract, but Silas has to tongue-kiss the Magus Fin statue to elicit its gift of magical powers.
  • Magic Compass: When pirates are on long voyages away from the floating city of Armada, they have compasses that always point to Armada to find their way back.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Uther Doul is either this or Magnificent Bastard, depending on your interpretation. He knows that the Lovers' plan will get them all killed (if you believe that; arguably, that part could have been a lie too), but he doesn't want to be shown doing anything himself to oppose the Lovers, so he manipulates Bellis by giving just enough information to start a rebellion of Armada's citizens, even indulging her growing infatuation with him. Many readers fell for it hook, line, and sinker, thinking he'd become an Anti-Villain in time and end up with Bellis, and oh how wrong they were. The revelation that he never felt anything for Bellis, and was only using her, was pretty harsh.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Silas Fennec: Fennecs are foxes known for their large ears. Silas is a sly person known for dealing in information.
  • Mermaid Problem:
    • Averted with the khepri, who have a bug head and a human body, but played straight with the Cray, who are basically crayfish centaurs (crayfish/lobster bodies with human faces and torsos).
    • A more specific example not actually involving merfolk confronts a young man in love with a Remade woman, as her legs are permanently embedded inside a steam engine. Lucky for them, her actual genitalia are still human, and both of them are pretty flexible.
  • Mirror Character: Uther Doul and Silas Fennec, as Bellis realises at the end. They both are Manipulative Bastards, and both were using Bellis, but never felt anything for her.
  • Mobile City: The pirate city of Armada is made out of thousands upon thousands of ships lashed together and repurposed into buildings, and moves nomadically on the oceans on the world to avoid detection. In its case, its mobility comes from the Avanc, a mind-bogglingly titanic sea monster that was harnessed to the city and now pulls it around.
  • MockGuffin: Everyone assumes that New Crobuzon and then the Grindylow have come for Silas Fennec's statue. While it has power, it is a trinket compared to Fennec's documentation of how to build a canal around Grindylow-controlled waters, increasing New Crobuzon's trade power at the Grindylows' expense.
  • Mouth Stitched Shut: Many undead inhabitants of High Cromlech have had this done to them, which is why their national language uses eye rolling and other subtle signals rather than words.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Almost every character from Armada is some combination of pirate. Whether it be a pirate scientist, or a pirate librarian, or a pirate waiter, or any random job. They're all pirates. Which doesn't even get into the pre-existing examples from earlier in the series which appear in different ways here. One fairly major character is a Vampire Pirate.
  • The Necrocracy: High Cromlech. The ruling class is made up of liches, served by zombies and living humans. Some vampires also reside there, but unusually for this trope they're at the absolute bottom of society, as the liches don't allow them to feed on their servants without express permission, and the rest of the city regards them as pitiful junkies.
  • Not So Stoic: Bellis hardly ever shows any outward emotion, except for one scene where she suddenly breaks down and starts crying upon the realization that she won't be able to get a message to her home warning them of an invasion, much less be able to return there. The character who discovers her breakdown is completely stunned.
  • Ocean Madness: Hedrigall decides to leave Armada, the floating city, and spends some time alone at sea. After he is found he has been driven mad by seeing his entire city destroyed.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Uther Doul's fight with the Brucolac. We don't even know was it a real fight or the Brucolac was simply curb-stomped by Uther Doul.
  • One-Gender Race:
    • The Khepri, who subvert this trope by having males that are giant non-sapient scarabs. The females are humanoid and intelligent, but have giant scarabs for heads.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different:
    • The Cray are essentially lobster-bodied centaurs (lobtaurs?). They speak a language of clicks.
    • The Grindylow are much less friendly mermen shaped like anglerfish with More Teeth than the Osmond Family and a brand of thaumaturgy (magic) that is completely alien to most humans.
    • Men-fish are mentioned several times throughout the book, though never described in detail.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: The ab-dead.
    • The ab-dead are stronger and faster than the living. They have forked tongues and can move almost imperceptibly in shadow. They heal quickly and do not age. Sunlight does not kill them immediately, especially older and stronger vampires, but it severely harms them and prolonged exposure will kill the ab-dead. Vampirism is caused by a virus in their saliva, and although infection is not guaranteed, repeated direct feedings can cause a human to become ab-dead.
    • The ab-dead live in secrecy throughout Bas-Lag except in Armada and High Cromlech. In Armada, the Brucolac and a cadre of his closest allies are the resident ab-dead and run the Dry Falls riding. Dry Falls is an area and political standing within the governing structure of Armada; residents of Dry Falls enjoy more political weight, subsidized entertainment and lighter disciplinary actions than other ridings, but pay for this with the gore-tax, a routine collection of blood from Dry Falls residents. In High Cromlech, the city of the dead, the ab-dead live in the open, but make up the lowest class, even below that of the living. The lich ruling class of High Cromlech protect their living servants from the predations of the ab-dead, and therefore, ab-dead are reduced to begging for handouts from the living and are considered to be junkies.
    • In Perdido Street Station, the single brief appearance of a vampire implied that the ab-dead in New Crobuzon appear to be completely normal people and live in secret.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Vampires are described as having a reputation as "junkies" among the other undead, and are considered to be the lowest of the low in High Cromlech, the city of the dead.
  • Perilous Prehistoric Seas: The oceans of Bas-Lag resemble this at times. The "bonefish" that attacks an underwater work crew, for example, is clearly based on placoderm fish like Dunkleosteus.note 
  • Press-Ganged: Many of Armada's inhabitants—notably Bellis—are brought on board the city against their will. Most try to make the best of the situation, since they don't have many other places to go.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Bellis fails in almost every endeavor she sets out to accomplish, which includes preventing the avanc from being summoned, saving New Crobuzon from an attack (which actually didn't exist), and preventing a civil war from breaking out between the citizens of Armada. She does manage to get back to New Crobuzon by the end, and she has shuffled off a lot of her unconscious, self-interested naivety in the process. As a plus, she's pretty much the only character who interacts with the Grindylow and doesn't end up brutally murdered. This is the happiest ending of the three novels.
  • Resolved Noodle Incident: Bellis gets a one-line mention in Perdido Street Station.
  • The Reveal: Bellis's letter was being written to no one; she didn't have anyone in particular in mind. In the end, she decides to deliver the letter to her one friend in Armada.
  • Sapient Cetaceans: Sapient dolphins aid the security forces of the floating pirate settlement of Armada, and there's a small mention of sapient whales. Inverting typical presentations the main dolphin character is a sadist named Bastard John, while the whales are all extremely meek and stupid dupes of the book's primary antagonists.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog Story: What raising the Avanc and sailing out to the hidden ocean ends up being to Armada. They turn around after finding out it will likely kill them all, and the Avanc dies shortly after they escape back to the Swollen Ocean.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The physical description of the Brucolac makes him sound a lot like Kai from Lexx.
    • One passage where the Armada citizens are preparing for battle briefly mentions "baan" in a list of weapons, which are the unpleasant and dangerously radioactive magic Laser Blades from M John Harrison's Viriconium stories.
  • Shout-Out Theme Naming: The monster hunters are named after the characters from The Hunting of the Snark, but in different languages. Their leader is Tinntinnabulum - the Bellman, and their ship is the Castor - Beaver.
    • The names of all the ships that make up the pirate city of Armada have a connection with other works of literature involving ships. There's the Arronax (after the narrator of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Wintershaw Market (after the protagonist of William Hope Hodgson's Boats of the Glen Carrig) etc. The New Crobuzon ship that chases Armada is the Morning Walker.
    • The Grand Easterly is a clear expy of the real-life ship the Great Eastern.
  • Spam Attack: Justified in with Uther Doul's Possible Sword. Proof that China Miéville has read up on quantum mechanics, charging this weapon with current causes it to deliver every possible strike it could deliver, all at the same time. The more possible a strike is, the more solid the sword's edge will be for that strike. Targets of the Possible Sword come out looking like they've been run through a mincing machine.
  • Starfish Language: The undead inhabitants of High Cromlech "speak" a language called Quiesy. As many of the residents lack vocal equipment due to the mechanisms of their reanimation, or simply had their lips sewn together as part of a mummification process the language makes use of carefully timed periods of silence, eye rolling and presumably other facial body language.
    • Almost every new language mentioned in this book is some kind of Starfish language, whether it's the hooting whistles of the Mosquito Men, or the Gryndlylows language of coughing barks.
  • Stealth Pun: The Brucolac... is a vampirate.
    • The artifact that Silas has is the Magus Fin, which turns out to not be very important (say it out loud and quickly if you're confused).
    • One of the defining events near the end of the book is a Lovers' Quarrel; the narration conspicuously avoids using that phrase even when it would be perfectly natural.
  • Storyboarding the Apocalypse: A big part of the climax; narrated by a minor character.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Bellis Coldwine in The Scar. Possibly a Stealth Parody of "strong, beautiful, and forceful" female protagonists in contemporary fantasy literature.
  • The Summation: Bellis tries to do one at the end of the novel, but admits she can't make heads or tales of Uther Doul's motivations, nor what he was actually planning. She comes up with three very plausible theories about what actually happened. All of them are frustrating to her because all three scenarios involve her being manipulated by Uther Doul, so she doesn't bother verifying which is correct.
  • That's No Moon:
    • Bellis finds out what it is Armada is looking for by means of a drawing in a book:
      She still did not take her gaze from the picture she held: a little man in a little ship on a sea of frozen waves that overlapped in perfect sequince-like fish scales, and below them deeps rendered in crosshatched and tightly spiraled ink, and at the bottom, easily eclipsing the vessel above, a circle in a circle in a circle, vast no matter how vague the perspective, unthinkably big, with darkness at its center. Looking up, looking up at the fisherman hunting his prey.
      Sclera, iris, and pupil.
      An eye.
    • Also, the bathyscaphe's pilot initially thinks they've miscalculated and reached the seabed rather than the avanc's back ... until a massive ridge rises up from the "ground", because the titanic sea creature's pulse is swelling a shallow artery beneath the apparent "sea floor".
  • Threatening Shark: Armada guards underwater locations and underwater entrances to restricted areas with trained Guard Sharks.
  • Time Master: The Ghosthead Empire's probability magic falls somewhere between this trope and Winds of Destiny, Change!.
  • Throw-Away Guns: Uther Doul actually manages to use this effectively. He can throw an empty flintlock with enough force and accuracy to kill someone.
  • Underwater City: The city of the Salkrikaltor Cray (lobster-centaurs) is located at the bottom of the ocean.
  • The Unreveal: We never find out what is in the eponymous Scar, or how much of the events were due to Doul's ministrations and how much were chance, or indeed whether the character who warned that going over the Scar would lead Armada into certain doom was making the whole thing up. The avanc, for all that its summoning is a key plot element, is never described in its entirety. Even Tanner Sack's original crime, for which he was Remade, is never stated or even referenced.
  • Vertebrate with Extra Limbs: The Cray... sort of. Their upper bodies are anthropomorphic, but they have the lower-halves of lobsters. The Cray are pretty much half vertebrate, and they have the extra limbs on the invertebrate part of their bodies.
  • War Is Hell: The naval battle, seen through Tanner's eyes, is tragic and horrifying.
  • Your Vampires Suck: The Brucolac sneers to himself at the merchant-riding representatives' terror when he kicks them out of his office, musing that they may be gullible and ignorant enough to believe he can turn into a bat.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: Armada has a number of airships, and alternate-universe Hedrigall manages to escape on one.