For a change, this is a rather recent story. I have read it about 10 years ago. I think it might have been a bit older than that, but did not have this “taste” of being from the 80’s or earlier.

There are several point-of-view characters, and one of them is a woman. I don’t remember much, except that one of the characters (probably one of the point-of-view characters, but I am not 100% sure) was a spy. In fact, he did his spying on an civilisation of mostly underwater vaguely humanoid creatures, who could survive at least a bit out of water. The spy had some device that could make him amphibious (whether it make him look identical to the creatures he was spying on, or more human-like than them, but still amphibious, I forgot). How he first got hold of this device I also forgot, but when the creatures get on the ship and catch him, one of them tells the woman that the device itself was not so very important. What they really were after were all the maps he drew (or at least the things he remembered) about their resources, the strengths and weaknesses of their defences, and so on, to prepare for a invasion by his employers.

This spy story was only one of the threads of this complicated novel. I forgot most of it. The only thing I remember clearly is that when the water creatures boarded the ship to catch the spy, the woman tried to appease one of them by telling him (her? it?) about the spy's device. But though the creature tells her the device is not so important he/she/it adds that it still is "puissant", though the book was in english. The use of this french word (which means "powerful") to describe a device that still was considered as not so important is the clearest memory I have of the whole book.

  • 6
    Puissant is an English word too, albeit a somewhat archaic/literary one.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 9:00
  • 3
    Would you you say that, as an English word, "puissant" is rather recherché ? LOL
    – Alfred
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 13:41
  • The joke is not mine, I got it from Douglas Hofstadter in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach.
    – Alfred
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 13:42
  • No, but then I read a lot of archaically written literature.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 13:42
  • 2
    The beauty of English is that at any moment any French words can become English words if we feel like it.
    – mattdm
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 16:23

1 Answer 1


This is The Scar by China Miéville.

The aquatic creatures were named "Grindylows" and the device that the spy was using was named the "Magus Fin" (a pun on "McGuffin" - readers were led to believe that it was important, but turned out to be insignificant).

The woman - her name was Bellis Coldwine - was a linguist who took a job as a translator on a ship in order to escape from the city of New Crobuzon. The language that she would be translating was that of another aquatic species - the "Salkrikaltor Cray" - which she didn't know and had to learn within a few weeks before the ship departed. The ship was captured by pirates from the mobile aquatic city of Armada.

  • Well, that was fast ! I checked on wikipedia, and indeed that fits the other things that I vaguely remember. Most important, I also checked "grindylows" and I found that they can make "puissant" (rather than powerful) magic. That did it.
    – Alfred
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 8:18

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