Date finished: January 2nd 2017
My favourite book of 2016 was, without doubt, Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. It’s a sprawling, intelligent, innovative work of superlative fantasy; the zenith of world-building with a fantastic story to boot, and a wealth of brilliant, mad and bizarre concepts. It’s everything that fantasy should be: bold, daring, and unlike anything else you’ve ever read. It doesn’t kowtow to the idea that fantasy is all dragons, swords and quests. It’s about races and species living in a gritty city, dealing with unimaginable horrors and strange monsters in a society recognisably complex but utterly unlike anything we can imagine. It transcends the boundaries of mainstream fantasy and is at the forefront of the genre’s innovation.
The second in the Bas-Lag series is The Scar which I finally picked up, having spent enough time savouring the brilliance of Perdido Street Station, and it might just be my favourite book of 2017 – a bold assertion to make on the 2nd day of the year. Though set in the same universe, the novel stands alone from its predecessor. Instead, the story follows Bellis, a young woman fleeing the city of New Crobuzon. She has secured passage on a ship with many others looking to escape to a new life in Nova Esperium. But when the ship is attacked by pirates, its passengers are forced to live in a city unlike any other. From the confines of this city, there is talk of forbidden islands, mythological races, leviathan beasts, uncharted waters, and a wound in reality of immense power: The Scar.
Much like Perdido, there’s far too much going on in this novel to give a brief summary of the plot. You think you’ve arrived at the plot, and then there’s another twist in the tale that takes you down a new path, even stranger than the one before it. That’s how Miéville operates adding layer upon layer of plot and universe to create an intricate web of intersecting threads that amount to one vast whole. It would be cruel to give too much of the story away as there’s so much fun to be had watching the various unfolds and reveals. Eventually, you end up so far from where you started that when events from the early chapters in the book are alluded to, you feel as though they were a lifetime ago.
The Scar very much stands apart from Perdido Street Station: different characters, locations and ideas form this story which builds heavily on the geography, races and mythologies of Bas-Lag in Miéville’s distinctive and irrepressibly inventive way. The book is positively brimming with incredible concepts and the history of a world that’s so rich and layered and alien that they’re worth the price of admission alone. It nonetheless retains all the charm and intrigue of its predecessor. Miéville stretches the confines of mere invention; where other authors create ideas and stories from the parts at their disposal, he manages to summon ideas out of some incomprehensible dimension. The man is a visionary and, though at times some criticise his writing ability, he is without doubt one of the finest world-builders in fiction. And anyway, they criticised Asimov’s writing ability, but he was still one of the most visionary authors of the 20th century. We’re not far into the 21st century, but I’d nonetheless like to nominate Miéville for that title.
The Scar is without doubt a fantastic novel – 800 pages of impeccable fantasy epic, threatening to rob you of sleep and make you arthritic from turning its many pages. It’s certainly as good as Perdido Street Station, but different enough from it to be wholly captivating in a completely new way. Miéville has managed to create a novel in a universe so abundant in potential that he can capture the same magic that made Perdido Street Station such a glorious experience again, as though it comes to him effortlessly. And nestled in this novel seem some rather obvious prelude ideas to his stand-alone novel Embassytown – his ideas just seem to fire off one another tangentially and unstoppable. There’s only one bad thing about this book: it makes every other book ever written seem worse by comparison. Thanks a lot China Miéville, you ruined reading for me. What am I supposed to look forward to in 2017 now?