I thought I’d get in a quick book review, and it’s a double one. Two China Mieville books straight after one another in the form of The Scar and Embassytown. It’s very literary sci-fi all the way with these offerings, the first a huge one about floating pirate cities that steal people and whatever else they need suddenly being given purpose in the form of a quest to reach ‘the scar’ a leftover source of possibility and power. With Embassytown, it’s the story of a city on an alien world where the local inhabitants can speak nothing but the truth, and only a few humans can talk to them at all.
I’m reviewing both, but they’re actually very different books, even when it comes to basic things like length. The Scar is huge. Epic sized. It’s big, and complicated, and has almost more of a fantasy-esque feel to it even though it’s full of steampunk style technology and a few distinctly sci-fi ideas. It’s a sprawling, intricate novel, while Embassytown has a much more focussed feel.
They both have in common some very literary tendencies, without forgetting their original genre, which for the most part makes them very good, worthwhile reads. You know that Mieville isn’t going to trot out the same old characters and creatures, and the world building in both is exceptional. The characters are almost all well drawn, with something interesting to say about the central theme of each book and roles to play that never become apparent before the end. There’s also a playfulness and interest in language which many people will love.
I feel it possibly overdoes it sometimes, though. The constant neologisms can grate after a while, as can apparent fixations on particular words (The Scar bingo: a point for every use of the word ‘puissance’). Indeed, I like the Scar a lot more than Embassytown, simply because of that obsession with language. In the Scar, Mieville has created a tale that plays with the traditions of epic fantasy by taking competing nations, ancient sources of power, fantastic quests and so on, then subverting them, with what he does with language as background. With Embassytown, language is the main theme, with the result that it all seems a bit much.
I have a few other issues with Embassytown. I’m still not sure what the creatures at the heart of the novel look like. I’m not sure the sub-plot with the android does much. Something about the end also feels a bit off. Maybe I’m just holding it up to very high standards since I think that The Scar is an exceptional novel, but of the two, it definitely feels to me like you should read The Scar before Embassytown.