Iron Council

“If they tried to argue it, they’d lose…but even though they know that, they still go on…because in going against the facts, they change them.”

China Mieville

I want to say, first of all, that Iron Council is, on its own terms, a damn good book.

 The third in China Mieville’s Bas-Lag sequence, the novel is set in a time of revolution and war. New Crobuzon, the repressive yet vibrant city at the heart of Mieville’s strange world, is at war with Tesh, a city of unknown magics and uncanny sorcerers, for reasons which remain unrevealed. Meanwhile, the city is tearing itself apart from the inside, too, as revolutionary feeling grows, and rumours of a mysterious entity known as the Iron Council proliferate. Iron Council stole something, once, from New Crobuzon. And now it’s coming back, and that knowledge sends the city into chaos.

 It’s hard to talk about Iron Council without spoilers, because for me the slow reveal at the heart of the book – the revelation of what Iron Council actually is – was one of the best moments of it. That postponed moment – postponed, I might add, until well over 200 pages in – of realisation is very satisfying, and is in itself an effective corollary to the project of a book that is an examination of the transitory and deceitful nature of revolution, of memory and myth, and of time. The Iron Council proliferates as a whisper, a strange myth, for a long, long time until we reach the messy, complicated and often sordid truth of it, just as it does for the Crobuzoner revolutionaries. For though Mieville is squarely on the side of the revolutionaries, rising against a government that cruelly Remakes – biologically alters – petty criminals, that violently suppresses any kind of revolt or protest, that crushes and overcomes all in its way with no thought for the social or environmental consequences of its actions (one of the most poignant portions of the novel is protagonist Judah’s time among the stiltspear, creatures of the marshes soon to be filled in by the encroaching railway being built across the continent), this is no simple tale of Good versus Evil, Gondor versus Mordor, or (to take a perhaps more relevant example) District 12 against the Capitol. That is, it’s rarely as clear-cut as those other narratives of revolution. Many of the central revolutionary characters here are violently egotistical in their motives in one way or another: Ann-Hari, whose ideological fervour is frequently seen as authoritarian, as aspiring to queendom rather than republic; Judah Low, whose love for Iron Council is deeply, disturbingly possessive even as it is saving; Toro, the legendary figure of the people, whose plan to kill the mayor eventually turns out to be motivated by personal reasons, not political ones. There are deep rifts between revolutionary factions, and differing motives. There’s a sense of hopelessness to the whole enterprise, too, as characters, over and over again, find themselves used, pressed into service to myths that do no justice to their own experience, their own hopes and dreams and plans. The revolution of New Crobuzon is one that can elide individuality as much as it tries to fight for it. The myth of history is remorseless in its storytelling.

 Like I said, Iron Council is a great book. It is thoughtful, intelligent fantasy full of big ideas; it is wildly, delightfully inventive in its storytelling and worldbuilding; it is, if not completely invested in its characters, at least convincing and complex in its creation of them.

 But.

 And this is probably an unfair criticism, this but: it just doesn’t measure up to the claustrophobia, the thematic density, of Perdido Street Station, nor the strangeness and wonder of The Scar. Partly this is down to the novel’s split focus between the broken New Crobuzon and the Iron Council out in the wilds: though the Iron Council is a great idea, Mieville doesn’t seem interested in the prosaic, everyday lives of the Councillors, nor in the lives of the disturbed New Crobuzoners. Which is a pity, because it’s precisely that focus on the minutiae of city life that made Perdido and Scar so vibrant and so engulfing. There’s a feeling to Iron Council that Mieville is more interested in his characters as abstractions, chesspieces in his wars, than as the pinned-down individuals of his earlier novels. And perhaps this is part of his point, but the novel loses out by it. I was nowhere near as invested in Judah and Cutter’s relationship in this novel as I was in Isaac and Lin’s in Perdido; nor could I bring myself to muster the anxiety for New Crobuzon’s survival against the Teshi here that I did for it against the grindylows in The Scar.

 Iron Council is a good book. It’s precisely the kind of SFF I want to read. But, unfortunately, it’s overshadowed by its predecessors, which were not merely good but really excellent.

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3 thoughts on “Iron Council

  1. Well said. I actually liked this one as much, if not more, than The Scar, with PSS coming in 3rd. I think the major reason this just isn’t as well received as the other two Bas-Lag books is because it seemed to me Mieville was going for very different objectives when he wrote them.

    To expand, I’ll compare Bas Lag to two of his other books I’ve read, The City & The City and Embassytown. The City & The City reads first and foremost like hardboiled noir entertainment with his views and commentary little incorporated, and incorporated in the sense mainly to give the story a little depth and the zany flavor we all know and love from his work. Embassytown, on the other hand, was much more focused on language and how it affects everything about life; the story for the most part felt like a back burner concern at times.

    That seems to be the case with the Bas Lag books to me. PSS and The Scar were written with the intention of being very much entertainment, but Iron Council had more of a political purpose/presense/drive behind it, in this case, an anarchist romance. Very, very different books indeed.

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    1. That’s an interesting take. I certainly agree that Iron Council serves a much more overt political purpose than either Perdido or The Scar (I haven’t yet read any of Mieville’s non-Bas-Lag work, though I intend to soon!), though I don’t think that means that those novels don’t have any political content, just that the political content is discussed and problematized within the context of the story. Armada, the ship-city in The Scar, is pretty obviously run on Communist principles – from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs – but it relies on violence and murder and theft for its existence. It’s no utopia. Whereas in Iron Council Mieville is taking a very particular stance on his Communist society: Iron Council is unequivocally a better place to be than New Crobuzon, more exciting and more important and more symbolic. We’re never allowed to be in any doubt of that as we are with Armada. Mieville sacrifices characterisation to political message. Which, as you say, makes it a different kind of book to its predecessors. It’s probably not therefore fair to compare it to the first two books, but personally I do prefer the characterisation approach.

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      1. To be honest I found Iron Council to be more in keeping with an idealized Socialist system than a Communist one (though in the long term that’s semantics, I guess). And yes, it’s probably not fair, but unavoidable, given that the books are being marketed as a trilogy of sorts, rather than single novels that happen to share a meta-setting. Sucks more people aren’t interested in it, though, I can easily see it becoming my favorite of the three when I think back about these books a few years from now.

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