To celebrate the tenth birthday of The Scar by China Mieville, I'm re-reading it and posting about the experience. There will be spoilers!Currently at: chapter 32
One of the more common criticisms of China Mieville's novels is that the characters are a bit weak. I think there's something to this. I can't, for example, remember the names of the main characters in Embassytown, Kraken, or The City & The City*, although I hasten to add that it didn't really affect my enjoyment of those novels. There's more than enough going on to keep me thoroughly engaged.
It is therefore interesting to me that I think one of the real strengths of The Scar is Bellis Coldwine, the lead character. I find her compelling, for a whole bunch of reasons. For a start, she's not your typical epic fantasy heroine**: she's a linguist, an adult (and, I suppose you could add, a woman). She's closed off and private, tightly controlled, independent and intelligent. And, frankly, not particularly likeable.
It's quite possible that choosing Bellis as the main point of view character contributes to the feeling of strangeness that I find so appealing about The Scar. It's also an excellent demonstration of the fact that you don't need to like a character to want to keep reading about her. The key there, I think, is that she is competent, clever and strong -- I may not like her, but I can certainly admire her. And understand her.
(This is the part where I point out that I've been trying to find time to write this post since about chapter ten, some three hundred pages ago. Since then, Bellis has become no less compelling, although I'm beginning to wonder at her interactions with the men in the novel. She's not a passive character, but it is beginning to seem like a lot of the doing is being done by the men around her. Tanner Sack delivering the message to the Dreer Samheri when Bellis couldn't find a way to do it herself, Silas Fennec preparing that message, Uther Doul feeding Bellis information for reasons that are so far unclear.
Perhaps it is relevant that Bellis is a translator. She's the conduit through which so much of the plot flows. In that sense, maybe it's appropriate that the people around her are the main actors. Being trapped by implacable forces is a bit of a theme not just for The Scar, but all of the Bas-Lag novels. Still, I'm beginning to be a little troubled by Bellis' lack of agency. Fortunately, I don't actually recall exactly how the book ends, so she may have her moment yet.)
I wonder if the reason that Mieville's earlier novels do better with characterisation is that they're so much longer. There's plenty of room for character development, whereas in his shorter subsequent novels the riot of ideas and plot pushes out the characters.
Or maybe -- and I'm really just guessing here -- it's that The Scar has a small ensemble of point of view characters: the Remade engineer Tanner Sack, and the young tough Shekel. I haven't mentioned them much because they play a smaller role than Bellis, but one of the things they do is illuminate Bellis' character through contrast. Shekel, so eager to learn to read, softens her. And Tanner Sack's love for the city that freed him throws Bellis' desperate need to be away from it into relief.
If you're reading along with me, I'm interested to hear what you think about Bellis and the other main characters in the book. Are you finding them as compelling as I am?
* Although Sham ap Soorap in Mieville's newest, Railsea, is pretty memorable.
** I feel I should add here that I am not hugely well read in the epic fantasy (sub-)genre. I might be missing all sorts of great stuff, in which case I welcome recommendations!