Book Review: Iron Council, China Miéville

In the centre of the swarm, hundreds of figures attending to its complex fussy needs, protected by guards, lookouts at the hills and treetops and in the air, came the cause of it all, the train. Marked by time. It was altered. The train had gone feral.


It is a time of revolts and revolutions, conflict and intrigue. New Crobuzon is being ripped apart from without and within. War with the shadowy city-state of Tesh and rioting on the streets at home are pushing the teeming metropolis to the brink. In the midst of this turmoil, a mysterious masked figure spurs strange rebellion, while treachery and violence incubate in unexpected places.

In desperation, a small group of renegades escapes from the city and crosses strange and alien continents in the search for a lost hope, an undying legend.

In the blood and violence of New Crobuzon’s most dangerous hour, there are whispers. It is the time of the Iron Council.


I adore Miéville’s Bas-Lag Trilogy!

And who could not love a story that contains the line “The train had gone feral”?

I was always a little disappointed by The Scar that, however wonderful it was, it had moved away from New Crobuzon, that monolithic, abusive, corrupt, endearing, cosmopolitan carbuncle which burst from the pages of Perdido Street Station as its own character. And this novel – third and final in the series, albeit a series where each novel is so self contained that there is little lost if you have not read the previous ones – takes us back to New Crobuzon. It is in fact a novel centred on the fight for that city – for its heart, its identity, its future, its very soul – on numerous fronts.

It follows a number of different characters over decades: Judah Low who learns the art of golemetry from the Stiltspear when he seeks to map their swamp for the approaching transcontinental trainline, and who grows to be a fabled golemicist capable of incredible constructs; Cutter, Judah’s lover with whom the novel opens as he flees New Crobuzon to search for Judah who has left to find the Iron Council; Ori, an intellectual rebel who seeks a sense of identity and purpose amongst rebel pamphleteers and then the militant and violent Toro.

These narrative intertwine and are presented out of chronological sequence as New Crobuzon – populated by Khepri, Vodyanoi, Cactacae, Wyrmen, Garuda and Humans and others – spirals from imperialist ambition (creating its transcontinental railway) to international war with the Witchocracy of Tesh, into civil unrest and oppression and deprivation, and then outright rebellion. It is a testament to the creation of the city of New Crobuzon that I both wanted the rebels to succeed – their aims were noble and understandable and right – and also did not – the city is such a potent character in its own right that I did not want it to change, despite its obvious corruption and failings!

The central symbol in the novel is of course the train itself.

It is a symbol of progress and modernity to some, reaching from New Crobuzon to new markets and cities. It is a symbol of imperialism and commercialism running roughshod over the stiltspear and other communities, which are eradicated to ensure its success. It is a symbol of freedom when the train workers revolt and free the Remade slaves and kill their overseers and bosses. It is a symbol of hope as the train escapes, its workers pulling up the tracks it passes over to move before the train and to re-laying again. It is a symbol of rebellion when, decades after seizing its freedom, it starts to return home to a New Crobuzon split in a civil war between the Parliament and its Militia, and the people and their Collective.

And the novel raises – and perhaps refuses to answer – the question “What value is there in a symbol? What is the gap between the symbol and the people of whom it is made up?”

I loved and was frustrated by this novel by turn.

Miéville’s world building is exceptional and his imagination wild as he conjures up increasingly insubstantial golems for Judah to mould, as he explores the landscape through which the train passes with demons of motion, as he explored the landscape that Cutter and his friends navigate to find Judah. At the same time, there were frequent moments where I felt that an incident was included simply to allow Miéville to introduce another (usually terrifying) species. Judah’s life as a gunsman in the wilds opened up by the train. The inchmen attack when the train was returning to New Crobuzon. At its best, the world building is exquisite – Judah’s time in the stiltspear village for example was tender and deeply moving – but elsewhere it felt a little… indulgent? Perhaps indulgent is the best word.

I also felt that some of the minor characters – even Ann-Hari who is crucial to the community on the train, Judah’s ex-lover, leader of the whores amongst the train followers, revolutionary and leader of the Iron Council itself was so much more than a minor character – were a little short changed in terms of their development. Weather Wrigthby, owner of the TRT and the train enterprise with a religious missionary zeal; Mayor Stem-Fulcher in New Crobuzon, unflinching and unyielding.

At the same time, the novel felt more political than others in the series and was clearly influenced by the events of the French Revolution – Ori’s scenes bore echoes of Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities – and the October Revolution in Russia, which is not surprising considering Miéville’s overtly Socialist politics. And yet he did not offer up the Iron Council or revolution as an easy answer. The process was muddled and confused and just messy. Symbols were not what they appeared to be: in New Crobuzon, Toro’s plan to assassinate the Mayor was muddied and not what it appeared to be – a spark to ignite revolution – and was ultimately pointless as the uprising began regardless; the rebellion paled into insignificance compared to the existential threat posed by the war with Tesh and the magics unloosed on the city; even the train’s return was an empty and futile geture.

But however empty the gesture, I found Judah Low’s actions in the final chapters and Miéville’s resolution of the novel – which I shan’t spoil – highly poignant. Whilst I can see why other readers might find it underwhelming or an anticlimax, I thought that it was beautifully well balanced and the final chapter was a gorgeous and lyrical paean to the Iron Council.

What I Enjoyed

  • The characters, who were likeable, flawed and incredibly well fleshed out – as complex as humanity can be at its best and its worst
  • The world building which reveals Miéville’s extraordinary imaginative powers creating a vast continent thrumming with life, which is often brutal and vicious and dangerous; his non-human sentient species are more convincingly alien and other and complex than I have found in many other fantasy or sci-fi books.
  • Miéville’s language which is always playful and lyrical – even in the most brutal moments – and challenging.
  • The casual bisexuality – pansexuality perhaps – of its characters.
  • The politics of the novel which do chime with my own – always a bonus – but do not become preachy or simplistic
  • The train that went feral. It’s a train. That goes feral!

What Could Have Been Different

  • The structure and balance of the novel was a little self-indulgent and bloated (oh that word sounds so judgemental!) and there were whole sections and some incidents that could have been excised without losing anything to the plotting or characterisation.

Overall:

Characters:

Plot / Pace:

Worldbuilding:

Structure:

Language:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Page Count: 624

Publisher: Pan MacMillan

Date: 6th May 2011

Available: Amazon, Pan MacMillan

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