Iron Council Paperback – Sep 17 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
In this stunning new novel set mainly in the decadent and magical city of New Crobuzon, British author Miéville (The Scar) charts the course of a proletarian revolution like no other. The capitalists of New Crobuzon are pushing hard. More and more people are being arrested on petty charges and "Remade" into monstrous slaves, some half animal, others half machine. Uniformed militia are patrolling the streets and watching the city from their dirigibles. They turn a blind eye when racists stage pogroms in neighborhoods inhabited by non-humans. An overseas war is going badly, and horrific, seemingly meaningless terrorist acts occur with increasing frequency. Radical groups are springing up across the city. The spark that will ignite the revolution, however, is the Perpetual Train. Workers building the first transcontinental railroad, badly mistreated by their overseers, have literally stolen a train, laying track into the wild back-country west of the great city, tearing up track behind them, fighting off the militia sent to arrest them, even daring to enter the catotopic zone, that transdimensional continental scar where anything is possible. Full of warped and memorable characters, this violent and intensely political novel smoothly combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, even the western. Miéville represents much of what is new and good in contemporary dark fantasy, and his work is must reading for devotees of that genre. FYI: Miéville has won Arthur C. Clarke, British Science Fiction and British Fantasy awards.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
In the forest Rudewood, Cutter waits for the few who will join him in finding the somaturge, or creator of golems, Judah, and then warning the Iron Council that the militia of the powerful, totalitarian city of New Crobuzon are closing in to destroy it. Meanwhile, in the malign megalopolis, young Ori, seeking to contact a daring urban freedom fighter and strike real blows against New Crobuzon's rulers, gets acquainted with an apparently mad old man said to have been a comrade of legendary outlaw-rebel Jack Half-a-Prayer. Mieville returns to the sublimely weird world of his award-winning Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002) in a shorter but still sprawling saga that is being boosted as his breakthrough to the kind of popularity fellow English fantasists Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman enjoy. The new book's parts alternate between Cutter's and Ori's adventures, which eventually intersect, and a long flashback tells the backstory of Judah and the Iron Council. Cutter's story unfolds like a blending of western movies and King Kong, and Ori's echoes the urban grunge fantasy of Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels. Freighting his prose with arcane botanical and engineering terms as well as neologisms, Mieville writes the intertwined tales in different styles--relatively spare and dry for Cutter's, lush and saturated for Ori's. His verbal and imaginative largesse may throw some readers while utterly engrossing others. No doubt about it, he's an original. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Do I recommend this book? Yes, for those who have already read PST and the Scar. For new readers, I'd recommend reading those two first.
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Fans of Mieville, however, will find in "Iron Council" perhaps his most nuanced and sophisticated writing to date. As usual, the author defies genres, and has produced what would best be described (if one was forced to use labels) as a gothic-western-political-thriller. At the same time, he continues to subvert traditional fantasy elements as well as co-opting elements from other traditions and grounding them in his reality. However, Mieville has also tackled a more challenging structural approach in this novel, as he uses three different voices and two time periods that, while connected by plot threads are separated by decades. Furthermore, the chronologically earlier section comes 130 pages into the book, which in the hands of a less gifted writer would be horribly jarring, but which Mieville pulls of with style.
The primary story (which is elaborated upon by the flashback) is set some twenty years after the events of Perdido Street Station, and finds New Crobuzon at war with distant Tesh, with discontent at home mounting as the casualties mount and the economy falters. It is a time of turmoil and political dissent bordering on civil war; as options are weighed, one man, Judah Low, goes in search of a near mythical construct whose time may be at hand, Iron Council. To say more would risk severe spoilers, but the real joy of "Iron Council" is that the plot is served so deftly by the underlying themes, and vice versa.
And those themes are legion, the most obvious one being New Crobuzon's war with Tesh as a parallel with the Iraq war. Likewise, there are economic factors that are akin to the bursting of the .com bubble of the late 1990's. However, Mieville has made it abundantly clear in numerous interviews that he has no interest in spreading his political views (he is a Socialist who has run for Parliament) through his writing, and that holds true here. Rather, these elements serve to ground the story in a believable reality, which allows the reader to accept at face value the fantastic elements. Moreover, even as he subverts everything that is a "norm" of fantasy, Mieville also casts his own views in a realisitic light. For example, the political activists (with whom he obviously sympathizes) frequently make capricious, even brutal decisions, and display very un-liberal traits such as disdain for homosexuals.
However, as I said, these groundings are mere jumping off points for a much more intriguing exploration, for at its heart "Iron Council" is an exploration of change/history. The groundwork for this is laid in Judah's ability to create golems, which Mieville describes as an intervention, a decision to change the un-living to living. Once the reader recognizes this metaphor, Mieville's intent becomes clear as he considers industry, politics and war (among other things) as interventions into the status quo, as forces for change. In so doing, Mieville quite rightly takes a long view of history in which right and wrong become blurred by the law of unintended consequences. There is a symmetry in his world, almost karmic in its nature, in which actions in the past rebound in unexpected ways in the present. The driving force of history for Mieville is the individual, but as such, he recognizes the fundamental instability this introduces into his novel. People change, there motivations change, and as such, tipping points can never be quite predicted, and will often radically diverge from the expected path.
Which brings me to one of the most intriguing structures in the book, that of the quest. In traditional fantasy, characters will generally band together for a come purpose, and face adversity from outside of the group. Their internal dynamic is largely fixed, and their motivations are common. Mieville, on the other hand, has described two quests in which each character's motivations are different, are often hidden, and sometimes at odds within the group. This far more realistic approach allows him not only to paint a more reasonable view of historical change as described above, but also to consider the power of "truth" as a motivation for said change. Mieville argues that sometimes a myth or a symbol can be more powerful than the truth. However, there is a danger in myths because they can be twisted to mask one's real motivations. Movements for revolutionary change, and one need look no further than the French Revolution, often become dressing for personal vendettas.
Finally, Mieville takes these two intertwined threads, intervention and truth, to ask an ultimate question: can one work for change even as one despises the mechanism of said change. For example, is murder acceptable if it serves a greater good? Or does change always pervert the purest motivations and draw them closer to that which is being rebelled against, in form if not in ideology? Does hating war mean wanting your country to lose?
In conclusion, if I have created the impression that "Iron Council" is nothing by dry philosophizing, I must apologize as nothing could be further from truth. First and foremost, "Iron Council" is an adventure story set in a world that for all it's bizarre and beautifully realized detail is nonetheless disturbingly familiar. However, Mieville is such a gifted writer, who pours so many ideas into his work, even the most literal reader will find themselves drawn into the undercurrents which suffuse the novel. "Iron Council" is another brilliant contribution from a remarkable talent, and I strongly recommend reveling in it.
So, what happened with Iron Council? Mieville's third Bas-Lag book is confusing, meandering, and populated by shallow, underdeveloped, highly unlikeable characters. His writing style is choppy throughout and routinely defies the most basic rules of grammar and usage; perhaps he was aiming for profundity (think David Foster Wallace), but he achieved only preciousness at best, and tedium more often. The narrative-such as it was, given his penchant herein for flashbacks, deus ex machinas, and withheld information-had holes in it one could (pardon the pun) drive a train through. The plot progressed as if he didn't know where it was going when he was writing it. Above all, Iron Council was agonizingly dull-I could hardly wait for the book to be over with and finished.
Many have correctly noted that this is Mieville's most explicitly political novel. Since his politics are Euro-socialist in character, perhaps you might think I was put off by that-but no. I am myself that rara avis, an American social-democrat of long standing, and I have little but sympathy for tales of community-level collectives (a la the Paris Commune) or worker oppression (a la the transcontinental railroad)-and both themes and their thinly veiled historical antecedents are prominent in Iron Council. But largely because of Mieville's failure to draw fuller, more sympathetic characters (Cutter is a whiny jackass; Judah Low is a cipher) or to sustain a believable and interesting narrative (the Council itself is an irritating community prone to sudden, inexplicable shifts of opinion as to its raison d'etre-but never mind, as it doesn't finally appear until hundreds of pointless pages have passed following the interminable wanderings of Cutter & Co. and the similarly unlikeable Ori back in New Crobuzon), and with it all undermined by his annoying staccato voice and sometimes incoherent descriptions of events, whatever merits Mieville's radically politicized story may have had get thoroughly lost in the shuffle.
In his previous novels, nothing felt like a "set piece"; everything that happened usually played a crucial role in why subsequent events turned out as they did. In Iron Council, by contrast, one senses more a rote succession of staged novelty acts, as if Mieville were making use of every half-developed idea he'd ever had. (Take the attack of the "inchmen," for one instance.) In a similar vein, the major characters in his earlier Bas-Lag were sometimes morally ambiguous, but that just made them consistently interesting and complicated. As many have commented, the most noteworthy thing about two of the major characters in Iron Council is their homo- or bisexuality, and yet while this is a promising and perhaps vaguely daring premise in the usually hyper-heterosexual world of fantasy fiction, it seems a choice made more for shock effect than anything essential to them or the plot. Their sexuality is clearly intended to be-but is very poorly realized as-vital to these characters' "being-ness," and thus it contributes almost nothing to our understanding of them. In fact, Cutter's passionate possessiveness toward Low makes him seem, more than anything, one-dimensional and frequently grating-hence, Cutter's sexuality becomes more of a negative trait, which seems rather incongruous with Mieville's anti-intolerance politics.
SPOILER ALERT-Just a few plot objections concerning the end of the book (though there were plenty of others throughout): Why wouldn't the militia have destroyed or booby-trapped the tracks just outside of New Crobuzon? Why hadn't they sought out and found their cohorts and the Council in the weeks prior to the train's approach, just as Cutter had? Why can't any of the refugees from the city give the Council a reasonably straight answer as to whether or not the Collective had already been vanquished? (It had.) And most of all, how does the "time golem" manage to continue in existence even after Judah Low has been killed? Finally, and in a completely different vein, why does Mieville use the word "career" as a verb over and over again?
But enough already. I have never before had my expectations so shattered by an author. I am astounded that anyone would think that this book is on a par with-or even better than-Mieville's previous Bas-Lag novels (though the wider consensus seems to be one of disappointment, more or less). Unfortunately, though, Mieville received some of the best and widest mainsteam-media reviews of his career with Iron Council, and if he believes his clippings, I'm afraid we may in for more outings like this. But his earlier works provide a far better indication of his prodigious talents, and so I will fervently hope that he can still return to that form with his next novel.
So with this adulatory review, what is wrong? Nothing really, it is just not quite as amazing as his first two in this world. I'm willing to write this off to knowing Bas-Lag and not being blown away by the sheer audacity as I had before. Some readers will be annoyed by Mieville's overt socialism, but that's a matter of personal taste. Personally I enjoy the change from - well, every other fantasy book I read. There are great ideas (smokestone, the whispersmith), creatures (Inchmen, Handlingers) and characters (Toro, Cutter), but Bas-Lag is becoming an eccentric old friend, rather than that wild guy you had a blast with once at a party. But no matter how wild Mieville got, I was expecting him to top himself at every corner, and he did. Maybe it's the comfort of knowing the book is going to be fantastic that was a slight let down. With Perdido Street Station, I kept thinking "I can't believe how good this is, he can't keep this up." With The Scar it was "Oh my God! It's actually better than Perdido Street Station!" Since I was expecting perfection, there could be no match to my hopes, but I adore this book. There are rich veins of fantasy storytelling here and you would be foolish to pass up reading The Iron Council. I guarantee nothing in your "to read" pile is as good.
If you like Mieville's other work, you will enjoy The Iron council. If you have not liked Mieville before, then you won't like this either. Perdido Street Station was a wonder, The Scar a miracle and The Iron Council a proclamation that Mieville has arrived as a truly great fantasy writer. His career will be fascinating to track starting about now.
This score comes with two warnings, however. China Mieville is deeply original, with more throw-away great ideas per page than almost any other speculative fiction author. The flip side is that his novels are not incredibly tight; they meander from subplot to subplot, with many of the excursions and discursions of little relevance to the main plotline. Indeed, an entire plot at the begining of the book proves of little relevance to the later development of the story. Mr. Mieville's books have always been like this, but the use of flashbacks only heightens the effect. If you like travelogues of the exotic and original purely for their own sake, as I do, this won't bother you. Otherwise, this might be very frustrating.
The second caveat is the language. This book is written in a style that will either delight you or make you shake your head at its pretention. A sample of a description (from a much longer sentence): "[he]... felt the incoming of whatever the thing was, the purveyor of the coming hecatomb; the massacre spirit, the messenmordist, the unswarm...."* Once again, I like this kind of thing, but if you don't, your enjoyment of the book may suffer.
Warnings aside, I would also suggest that, as original as this book is, it has a near precedent in Gene Wolfe's the Urth of the New Sun series. Similar strangeness of language, similar travelogue nature, and similar originality. Wolfe's book holds its own from a non-science fiction literary perspective, developing important and coherent themes and deep characters, while I don't necessarily think that Iron Council does the same. This is not of ultimate importance if you are looking for a good read, which Iron Council is, but suggests that Mieville still has a way to come in living up to some of his most strongly glowing reviews.
* Note: the fact that quoting a dire description like this gives away nothing of the book is a good indicator of the rambling nature of the plotlines in Iron Council -- you won't know what this describes until it is suddenly introduced.
Back in the city itself, the themes of oppression and revolution play themselves out. Ori, a young man, is drawn into the mild sedition or an organization (perhaps it is a 'dys'organization) called the Caucus. These meet secretively, engage in mild guerilla politics, but are mostly a discussion forum. Finally dissatisfied, he shifts to a more violent form of protest, let by the bull-headed Toro on a quest to kill New Crobuzon's mayor and bring down the current regime. New Crobuzon itself returns as a major theme, much like the one it played in Perdido Street Station. But while that book saw the city as something vitally and sometimes fearfully alive with both horrors and delights, Iron Council presents a picture of a degenerating social class struggle, a collapsing economy, and an increasing oppressive government.
The stories are sometimes disjoint, but inevitably intertwined, as the Iron Council becomes less a group of angry train builders and more a symbol for what is happening in the city. The great, peripatetic path of the Iron Council leads inevitably back to the city. The war with the Tesh rides on the insurgency. Judah, Cutter, and Ori are the players that tie these threads together into an unnerving tapestry straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.
When an author who has been consistently excellent falls short of his previous efforts, there is a tendency for the reviewer to be excessively critical in response. While I intend to avoid that extreme, Iron Council has some very real flaws that deserve some attention. The first is the extremely slow start of the story lines. Most of the first half of the book is the history of Judah and the train. While the core facts of this history are vital to an understanding of the story to come, Mieville seizes on the opportunity to show off his control of language. Scenery is described in almost excruciating detail and the writing style, full or portent and metaphor is florid, even to the point of invented words. By the time the story became more than historical narrative this reader was feeling a bit dazed, and I had a great deal of trouble re-establishing my reading momentum.
On top of considerable linguistic skills, Mieville is an extremely inventive author. But in Iron Council he, like the city itself, becomes too dependent on mechanism. Judah is a golem master, and these creations play dues ex machine roles in moving the story forward. Just as the city makes monsters out of human, machine, and animal parts, Mieville constructs his own version of the English language, with its own occasional horrors. The reader is often undecided if he is reading a work of fiction, a metaphoric autobiography, or something written purely for display.
If not as readable as Mieville's previous books, this is still a landmark effort and should be accorded respect. It isn't a 'reader friendly' book - none of the New Crobuzon novels are really that - but it is one that generates both thought and new ideas in the reader. If you are new to the series, start with Perdido Street Station, since this story is very much embedded in that one. If you are looking for stylistic parallels then you will find Mieville's facility with language quite similar to Umberto Eco's, and can make your decision accordingly.