I’ve always been torn on China Miéville. He writes beautiful prose about strange otherworlds, and that is totally my kind of thing. I love books about weird places and the unfamiliar people living there, and I love the kind of writer who shows you around their setting in carefully chosen phrases, who can happily spent a page describing the view from a character’s window. Miévilleis definitely that kind of writer.

But I have to put him in a certain box in my mind. This box is labelled ‘DOES NOT WANT TO GIVE US NICE THINGS’, and sitting there waiting for him is one Mr. Iain M. Banks. They’re there to give me advance warning: these are otherwise appealing writers who I need to remind myself just can’t manage to get through a whole story before their inner eight-year-old takes over and sends them on a rampage to smash up the whole intricate world they’ve been building up for a whole book.

I mean, I guess they’re not just having a senseless tantrum: they’re both authors with things to say about nihilism and destructive social and political structures and the dark side of human nature and the like. Still, Embassytown and Perdido Street Station and The Player of Games and a bunch of others were all novels whose premises gripped me and whose writing style I admired a lot, and in all of them a shift took place towards the end that just left me fed up. Rocks fell; everyone died or lost the will to fight. I’d invested hours of attention in these places and characters, and it turned out their stories were going to end in misery and mindless destruction. I couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed; I’d wanted to like these characters, and I got frustrated having the story set them off to make a difference to their worlds only to trip up in the final act and spend the rest of the story flat on their faces learning a hard-earned lesson about futility. It just didn’t seem in keeping with the thoughtful storytelling theirs novel start with any more than it would have if the power of friendship saved the day in the nick of time. Sorry, guys; I’ve wandered off from the same page as you.

So that’s my background, and I’ll come out and say that normally, futility isn’t something I’m interested in reading about in sci-fi and fantasy and genre fiction. It works in The Scar, though: it really works.

At the story’s start, the central character gets lost: one Bellis Coldwine loses her home and her social position and her support network, and the novel dances around her current situation as she considers substitutes for them. An elaborate, evocative society moves around her; other characters negotiate their own lives and relationships. Not all that much happens, for a 700+ page novel in a fantastical world with a lot of volatile and dangerous people in it. Whenever something does happen, Miéville assesses its impact; he writes his way towards the big destructive climax of the novel gradually, taking the temperature of the town as he goes and showing us all the stages that lead towards civil unrest.

Miéville earns all the mess and explosions and the big dramatic break-down in this novel in a way I haven’t seen him do elsewhere. I was interested. As always, the setting was beautifully original and detailed, and Miéville’s enjoyment of making up monsters fits in well here. His antagonists were sympathetic and his protagonist flawed and engaging; the ending was well-pitched, and he left some pleasing ambiguities open without it feeling like a lazy writing decision. It wasn’t a book I felt utterly amazed by in any one moment of creative genius, but it feels like a coherent and satisfying story in a way none of his others have to me. Bellis changes very slowly over the course of the book, so subtly that I didn’t notice him write any one key moment for her until I looked back on the finished whole. That’s one of the reasons everything falling to pieces works for me in this Miéville plot more than any others: these huge events that are shaking up whole civilisations are linked close to our main character’s narrative arc, but the way they affect her isn’t at all straightforward. That’s a pretty subtle piece of writing, and it’s more than earned a place as my favourite one of his books.