“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.”
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.
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.