Iron Council by China Mieville

Rating 9.0/10
Empty trains on empty sidings, where my friends have been remade

China Mieville is not an author whose books I undertake lightly. Despite loving Perdido Street Station and quite enjoying The Scar (if enjoying is the right term), I had to work myself up to taking a third trip into the dark, fantastical world of Bas-Lag, since I knew it would be an intensive emotional roller-coaster ride and I was not wrong.

Where previously Mieville's Bas-Lag novels alternated a couple of protagonists and a more universal, authorial word painting, the style of Iron Council is a little different since the book follows three main plot threads.

In the first, Cutter and his friends, a group of dissidents from the gritty Orwellian metropolis of New Crobuzon begin a long journey into the weird and wild lands of the continent in search of the legendary golemist Judah Low, a man who it is said once knew the mysterious Iron Council.

At the same time, in the crumbling mazes of New Crobuzon's streets, the young Ori grows tired with the revolutionary talk of the paper Runagate Rampant and seeks for a more active form of resistance, eventually following the mysterious old man Spiral Jacobs into the hands of the bull headed Toro who has a plan to rock New Crobuzon's government to its foundations and begin a revolution against the hated authority of Parliament, even as New Crobuzon's war with the magical city of Tesh threatens darker reprisals.

The third string to the plot involves Judah Low himself, his history, and that of the doomed effort by the New Crobuzon Transcontinental railroad company to span the wilderness with train tracks, heavy with details of the accompanying life following rails, a world of boom towns, railway men and camp followers, where indigenous peoples are swept aside in the name of progress, and how eventually this progress lead to the birth of something greater.

Where I felt in The Scar Mieville's tendency to create extremely flawed, often dislikeable characters went a little far (to the point that one of the book's two protagonists was less than sympathetic), one of the first things to say about the principle characters of Iron Council, is that all three are people you can sympathise with.

This is particularly important for Mieville, since his style is so redolent of dark poetry, his world so savage, tragic and grotesque, and above all the events of his plot so often downright cruel, if there is nothing to like the book can simply read as unremittingly bleak for the sake of bleakness. Though he perhaps doesn't succeed as well as he did in Perdido Street Station, in Iron Council all three protagonists have both a capacity for decency, (indeed in the case of Judah often against his own better judgement), and a capacity to feel for others, providing a small crumb of kindness in a nightmarish and vast wilderness, an environment, a setting, even a very authorial style that seems all too often to glory only in the grim and the murderous.

This theme of finding a small light in the dark extends very much to the Iron Council itself, since though its birth is painful in the extreme, what Judah and the others find and what the Iron Council is does show a small capacity for good, a light in the very real darkness of what is in typical Mieville fashion a damnably bleak story.

The book’s style is Mieville's usual. Complex, poetic and with a delight in bizarre landscapes and visions that range from the otherworldly to the downright ugly. Perhaps it was just that I knew what to expect, but I didn't find Mieville's word pictures quite as shocking as I did in Perdido Street Station, though this might just be my own the numbness born of familiarity. That being said, I did notice and appreciate here a number of allusions, asides and sly little digs Mieville made at other works, such as the name of the revolutionary organization The Corcus leading to one of the book's parts entitled "the Corcus race" recalling the pointless race run by the dodo in Alice in Wonderland. While Mieville is far too good a stylist to rely overly upon such allusions or have no other strings to his stylistic bow, those he did add were certainly amusing.

One problem I do have with Mieville's style in general, and with Iron Council in particular, is with his concentration upon descriptions, poetry and large scale events and landscapes, there were a number of occasions where he glossed over events a bit too quickly.

For example, during Judah's history we learn how he was at one time head of a golem fighting ring in New Crobuzon, and at another time the apprentice to a perpetual gambler who played his way up and down the railway lines. Both of these periods involved distinct and potentially fascinating stories in themselves, but Mieville inevitably paints these events only rather broad brush strokes; albeit brush strokes made with Mieville's sardonic, descriptive flare.

While not exactly time skips, I have got the distinct impression that Mieville is far happier dealing with landscapes, large scale happenings and impressions than the minute details of his character's experiences, often in Iron Council; especially because his protagonists here were rather more likeable, to the detriment of our ability to understand and sympathise with them. For example Mieville skirts over Judah's romance with a character who later becomes majorly important, goes through quite a noticeable development and has a huge impact on the plot, and who I really would've liked to see a little more of, yet who doesn't actually speak in real time until a good while afterwards.

Mieville's tendency to run into poetical, universal time skips also has a bearing on some of the distinctly tragic events later on, since while I do not relish descriptions of suffering, at the same time I was disappointed that Mieville skips over many of the positive aspects of the revolution and the experiences of secondary characters (who are often people I would like to see more of), in favour of tragedy, death, destruction and brutal oppression, amazingly and shockingly described though said oppression is.

This tendency towards a broader style is also why one protagonist, the sardonic Cutter at least seemed to get a little short changed along the way, since while Mieville describes Cutter's journey across the continent beautifully and with spectacle and poise, I didn't get quite as much a sense of who Cutter was overall or what journey he was going through as compared to Ori or Judah, a problem particularly telling given that Cutter is Judah's lover and yet we rarely get much interaction between them.

All this being said, there are few writers I know who can describe a journey, a battle, or a political movement in such broad terms, and yet make those terms poetic, compelling and darkly beautiful the way Mieville does. Indeed, in many ways Iron Council with its lengthy journeys across the wilds, weird creatures which range from hedgehog people riding fighting cockerels to landscapes of stone which can become smoke, is possibly the most richly described of all of the Bas-Lag novels, even if it's characters are slightly short changed in favour of the poetry.

Iron Council is set 20 years after Perdido Street Station, and though there were some links back to the crisis of the Slake Moths, it would've been nice to see some characters again especially those we grew to love like Isaac and Lin, and there were literally no call backs to The Scar at all, quite surprising given New Crobuzon's war with Tesh, which is not the enemy threatened in The Scar. In particular this reflects upon the book's ending, since one of the constant facets of the world of Bas-Lag has been the grubby, self serving oppression of New Crobuzon's parliament.

Iron Council addresses that oppression directly, even as far as having the threatened revolution occur, and yet the ending does not entirely resolve the revolution, though it does provide somewhat a ray of hope for the future, for all a rather tenuous one.

Apparently Mieville stated that he wanted to write one story in each genre. The Scar was a sea story, and Iron Council borrowed some of its trappings from the western genre. While it does feature a railroad, bandits, gunfighters and gamblers, to me Iron Council reads far more like Les Miserables. Character histories are brought together around a revolution, histories which often resolve pretty badly.

Whether the ending to Iron Council is a success or not I am genuinely not sure, indeed I suspect there are those whom it will frustrate in the extreme, and those who can see the beauty of it.

I will say I do wish Mieville had given a little more resolution to several of his characters, in some ways in Iron Council's ending I rather felt that he followed the tendency to over broad depictions in the book by deciding to cut some parts of the story prematurely short rather than provide satisfactory individual resolutions, despite the fact that the hope he shows us is a genuinely beautiful and precious image. Indeed where the tragic ending of Perdido Street Station felt entirely justified though gut wrenching, I don't exactly know what my overall impression is about the ending to Iron Council.

However the ending is though, the one major characteristic of Iron Council is that it is the story of a journey, indeed several journeys, journeys into freedom and darkness, and wherever the journey goes, the journey is certainly worth taking.

While not as complete in its grotesque beauty as Perdido Street Station, Iron Council is nevertheless a strange and wonderful story, though I do hope Mieville revisits Bas-Lag in the future, and perhaps gives some of his cast, and indeed the whole society of New Crobuzon, a little more by way of a future, since however it resolves, I can't deny that Mieville has created a world I care about populated by vivid characters; some of whom I have come to love.

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