As our world has gotten more industrialized and the use of mirrors and other reflective surfaces has grown, these beings are more and more tied down to this imprisonment. Ah, but here Mieville throws another curve - what of those beings who don't have reflections? Vampires have been with us in legend and folk tale for a long time, and under Mieville hands they are transformed into advance scouts, spies on our world, for these denizens, whom Mieville calls 'imagos', finding ways to break their prison.
Now to top off this already fantastic idea, China describes what happens to our world when these imagos finally do break free of their prison. The resulting bleakness of a war ravaged world fits the Mieville mold perfectly (no sunshine pollyanna stories for him!), as we follow the attempts by one man, Sholl, to communicate with what is left of humanity and get closer to these beings. This individual may be a unique human - no vampire will touch him, except for one, his analogue in the mirror world. And with this juxtaposition of opposites Mieville imbues this story with multiple levels of meaning, a labyrinth of mirrors, opposites, reflections and non-reflections, philosophies and points of contact with our world. All told in China's inimitable style, where he shows his great command of the English language to describe, to illuminate, to evoke mood and feeling, though in this work it is not quite so overpowering as it has been in his previous novels. The ending is quite fitting, and not a very predictable one at all, providing yet another layer of thought and meaning to a story already richly imbued with this.
Perhaps there could have been a little deeper look at the inner thoughts and society of the imagos, and a little more background to his protagonist, but as it sits this is a small, polished gem, waiting for the unwary reader to get lost inside its multiple (self-reflecting) facets.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
But that's enough about the publishing arrangement, what sets 'The Tain' apart is not its packaging, but its fascinating story. On the simplest level, this is Mieville taking a turn at apocalyptic fiction, but of course its more than that. Mieville never sees fiction the way one would expect any other author to, and so instead of disease, or nuclear war, the reader is treated to a London ravaged by our escaped reflections. More accurately, these 'imagos', as Mieville describes them, are beings that operate in entirely different dimensions than our own, but as a result of a war in the long forgotten past, they were imprisoned in mirrors'in the tain'in any reflective surface. Thus, they were forced to adapt their essence to our corporeal forms, and as mirrors became more prevalent, their imprisonment became all the more onerous.
Some managed to break free into our world, where they killed their reflective twin and moved among us. Mieville quite cleverly uses the vampire myth here, as they have no reflections and do not die except by violence. Moreover, they are imbued with the inhuman strength and nature of the imagos, and thus come to act as spies in our midst. Like the vampire, though, they are always alone, even among there own kind, as they are trapped in the forms they most despise.
So that's the gist of the plot, but there's so much more going on. The story is narrated in alternate chapters by an unnamed vampire, and by Sholl a human who is disconcertingly ignored by all of the imagos. Both are outsiders in their own way, and both are uncertain as to what is required of them in this new, blighted landscape. The vampire knows who he is, but not where he belongs or what he should do, and Sholl knows what he must do, but is uncertain as to what he really is. Thus, the two reflect each other even as they are at odds. Moreover, there is an inversion of Matheson's 'I Am Legend' in that they can move freely among their enemies but are uncertain among their own kind. While this might seem like a handy trait, it leads to an alienation far more profound than being at war with the rest of the world.
At only eighty-nine pages, this is a short story, and to go on any further would risk spoiling critical plot elements. Suffice it to say that Mieville has put his fingerprint on another genre. Fans of his work will be struck by how 'the Tain' echoes his prior novels while traveling in completely different paths, and new fans will be introduced to him at his best, utterly unique and masterfully spinning the English language. While this is a book that will probably only be read by his most devout fans, not least because of its limited accessibility, I would encourage all of those who enjoy insightful literature to track and down and savor it.
It would be nearly impossible to recount the plot here, both because of its complexity, and the risk of spoiling it. However, there are a few general points that I think bear mentioning. First, while this is not a sequel to "Perdido Street Station" it does reference events in that book; there are no common characters, but the protagonist, Bellis Coldwine, is fleeing the city as a direct result of the happenings in the prior novel. While one could easily read "The Scar" without any knowledge of "Perdido Street Station" I would still recommend reading it first, as your appreciation of "The Scar" will be greatly enriched as a result.
Second, "The Scar" is a darker, more ambiguous novel than its predecessor (which was by no means cheery to begin with). It is not an easy beach read for the summer; while it is immensely entertaining, it is also monstrously complex and intensely thoughtful. This is really a novel that needs to be read without distractions and with a great deal of thought as to what is going on. There are a lot of subtle themes and messages in this book, and it needs to be approached in a manner more befitting "literature" rather than your average "sci-fi" (I use quotes because SF can obviously be literature, I'm just speaking in stereotypical terms).
Which brings me to the writing; anyone who read "Perdido Street Station" would have to agree that Mieville is a master of his craft. There are few writers today who have the same grasp of the English language; Mieville absolutely revels in the descriptive abilities of the written word. I would read an atlas if Mieville wrote it just to see how he described the landforms contained therein.
He is also intensely interested in exploring human nature across its entire spectrum. From compassion to cruelty, Mieville is fascinated by our motivations. If one reads an interview with him, it becomes obvious that Mieville wouldn't mind being cast as the anti-Tolkien. While giving a nod to Tolkien's creation of an entire world down to the smallest details, Mieville revels in his characters' moral ambiguity and indecision, as opposed to Tolkien's characters who always know where they stand. Furthermore, while Tolkien used his races to highlight different ideals, Mieville uses his vast panoply of creatures to highlight the absurdities of racism and the nature of "humanity".
Finally, Mieville is a master of the metaphor. I can say, without, giving anything away, that the Scar, of the book's title, is an actual place, but also a recurring theme throughout the novel. All of the characters (which are so diverse and beautifully realized it is nothing short of breathtaking) have scars, physical and mental. Some rise above them, some never come to grips with them, and some are brought low by them. In the end, the Scar is, at its most simple level, a double entendre. It is the heart of darkness of the world of Bas Lag, but it is also that heart of darkness within the primary characters that draws them to their destiny. In the end, some of the characters refuse to have their future dictated by the scars of their past, while others wallow in their pain and meet their end.
I could go on indefinitely, and not even scratch the surface of the message in this book. However, I have covered the key elements I took away from the novel; I'll leave it for others better versed than I to continue the discussion. Ultimately, "The Scar" is a novel of immense emotional depth. The characters are brilliantly written and act upon a world stage that is breathtaking in its scope. It is a highly entertaining adventure in the finest nautical tradition, but it is so much more. It is an exploration of the depths of our ambition and the foundations of our humanity. Do yourself a favor and read this novel (and carefully), it will not disappoint and it will leave you thinking for a long time to come.
I said that it was a lesser book than Perdido Street Station. I can only qualify that by saying that Bellis Coldwine isn't the hero that Isaac was, the plot wasn't as gripping as the slake-moths, and ultimately that I was already familiar with Bas-Lag.
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Thankfully, this novel is more than just a fascinating setting. Mieville also tells a gripping story about an insidious menace unleashed upon the city, a desperate scientist on the fringe and his illicit khepri lover, and a shattered bird man's quest to regain flight. This tale begins slowly, but quickly gains steam. Be warned, though, that this story is not very pretty, and I don't mean just the garish violence and vulgarity (which seem entirely at home in this squalid metropolis). It doesn't end very neatly, but with a jagged tear that left me more disturbed than with a sense of resolution. Various threads of the plot arise suddenly and then disappear, uncertain to return. Even this casual disregard for tidy narrative structure seems deliberate, a structural reflection of the city's chaotic, brutal nature. Nevertheless, quite beautiful as a whole.
New Crobuzon itself is the main character of "Perdido Street Station." Mieville describes the city as a combination of London, Cairo and Havana. But even a shallow reading reveals far more than that. Founded on the bones of some legendary beast, it is peopled with hundreds of different cultures, many non-human. The Kephri, insect headed, who excrete fantastical art, the Vodyanoi water masters, and the isolationist Cactus People. Some are actually shaped by magic and machine. Each individual culture has its own life style and environment. New Crobuzon is a crazy quilt mix of these peoples and their artifacts. The sum of their contributions and more. There are mages, thaumaturges, scientists, artists and artisans of every discipline. Slums and fashionable neighborhoods and decayed elegances abut one another. This is a city made in the image of Hieronymous Bosch's most fevered visions of hell. Wherever the reader looks there are countless layers and distractions to study.
Desperately trying to trap the slakemoths, der Grimnebulin acts as our guide through this city. Having first conceived of the idea of a crisis engine as a way to grant Yagharek flight, Isaac realizes that it is the only hope of undoing his mistake. Aided by revolutionaries, remade men, immense intelligent machines, an eerie spider creature and others almost too numerous to catalog, the inventor scours the city for the knowledge and materials the he needs. Finally, atop the Perdido Street Station, the center of the city's links to the world, Isaac weaves New Crobuzon itself into the his final weapon. If he can win, the dreams of the city will no longer be invaded by the slakemoths and New Crobuzon can return to a semblance of sanity.
This is a book about transformation, the tragic nature of heroism and the pain of inexorable justice. Each character must face the outcome of their decisions and actions. New Crobuzon itself, its vastness sprawling beneath the heights of Perdido Street Station is the court in which each one's mettle is tested, and all too often found wanting. The book has an eerie flavor of the Victorian Gothic about it and one finds that the most memorable characters are creatures of accident - the remade man Half-a-Prayer, the spider creature Weaver, and the housecleaning automaton that develops intelligence and leads the others to their best hope of survival.
If "Perdido Street Station" has a fault, it is that it is too rich a diet for easy reading. On more than a few occasions I found myself putting the book aside after a chapter or two, to think over all the images and ideas that Mieville uses freely. What surprised me is that the writing was so vivid that I found it easy to pick up where I left off, even after a day or two pause. The book is a wonder on many levels, with enough content to populate more than a single city. Indeed, we are promised that there is a forthcoming tale also set in the same venue. The intrepid reader will find this book a deep well of ideas and imaginings.
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Saul returns home after a night of partying to find that his father has been murdered. He becomes the prime suspect. But while in jail, someone comes to bust him out; a strange looking man who can crawl on walls, squeeze through tight spaces and who acts like, well, a rat.
This is King Rat, Saul's uncle. And he is about to tell his nephew a very strange tale indeed. Soon enough, Saul becomes a rat man himself, hiding in sewers and living in the darkness of the London underground (much of this seems familiar; British authors seem to have a fascination with the London underground, as Neil Gaiman has proven with his amazing Neverwhere.).
But of course, all isn't well in the underground kingdom. Because Saul soon learns that the kingdom's enemy, the Pied Piper, is in town. And it is only when the Piper starts going after Saul's friends that things really get ugly, and bloody.
Very original, beautifully described and told, King Rat is a one-of-a-kind novel that practically reads itself. It is an Urban fantasy where violence and darkness seems to reside in every corner you look. It is an engaging read that always keeps you guessing.
So it is very unfortunate that the book falls victim to the first-time author disease. The prose is often self-indulgent; too many words are used when just a few would have sufficed. And some of the supportive characters seem to blend together because they are all so similar. But that problem is quickly resolved with the main characters, who are very colorfu, memorable and original.
I had a lot of fun reading King Rat. Fans of Neil Gaiman or Charles de Lint should like this one. And the rest of you should find enough originality in here to last you for a long time.
The only drawback is that you really have to suspend your disbelief. There are several questions that Mieville leaves unanswered. For instance, how in the world are these people rats...but they're also humans? I don't get it.
Very well written book. Solid story. Highly recommended. This gets my choice for the best debut novel of 1998-1999.
Watch out for 'Perdido Street Station', Mieville's second novel, published in the UK earlier this year. It is set in a really strange universe, mixing fantasy horror and science fiction in a way that is unique and original. It will simply blow your mind. This writer is destined to be one of the biggest stars. Buy this novel now and then buy anything else China Mieville writes.
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