Anyone who's read this site over the last few years knows of the high esteem in which China Miéville is held around here. I think he's probably the most important new fantasy writer of the new century, and his novels Perdido Street Station and The Scar are masterful exercises of the imagination that will go down as classics. So it's with an almost physical sense of pain that I must pronounce Iron Council the Crushing Disappointment of 2004. While Miéville's dazzling and unfettered creativity is on display as ever, the story he has told here — the third set in the mad Heironymous Bosch landscape of Bas-Lag — is a meandering and, dare I say it, dull affair that only occasionally captures the freshness and the spark of its predecessors.
In my review of The Scar I voiced the hope that Miéville would move away from Bas-Lag for his next novel, and try a little something new, if only to keep the whole thing fresh. My fears seem to have been borne out. Iron Council, while not a bad book by any stretch, is by Miéville's standards a dismayingly routine and mediocre one. Its characters inspire little sympathy and the story, while it does tackle the weighty subject of the potential fall of the city-state of New Crobuzon itself, is nonetheless aloof for much of its length. Whereas Perdido and The Scar were genuinely haunting and eye-opening epics that broke new ground, Iron Council just feels like one of those overstuffed mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters that's all special effects and no heart. Even Miéville's crazy knack for creating endless menageries of bizarre creatures has lost its power to impress. "Oh look, a man with half another man's body grafted on," or, "Oh look, a centaur person with his head facing backwards" pretty much sums up one's reaction to the almost conveyor-beltlike parade of weirdities trotted out in Iron Council. Do I still think China Miéville is a freaking genius? Yes I do. Do I also think geniuses are fallible mortals like the rest of us? Yup.
The story this time is set around 25 years or so after the events in the previous two volumes. I do admire the way Miéville resists the temptation — which he may have had thrust in his face relentlessly by his editors— to follow the routine pattern of series fiction, writing sequential novels in an ongoing saga that requires readers to start at a beginning volume. Miéville has had the extraordinary good fortune of being so good at what he does that most of his bibliography will remain in print for years based upon its merits, as opposed to someone like, say, Modesitt, who only has half of his in print because he's worked out the Piers Anthony formula for never letting a series end. But Iron Council, while it is a stand-alone story like its predecessors, will almost certainly be inaccessible to new readers who haven't read those books. It isn't particularly accessible to hardcore Miéville fans (he said, speaking as one).
It literally takes about 200 pages for this book to get interesting, which is something I'm much more used to saying about Terry Goodkind. We begin at a time when turmoil is the order of the day in New Crobuzon. A war — and no one is sure how it started — has broken out with a neighboring city-state called Tesh, and it effects are bleeding out into the countryside surrounding New Crobuzon. Meanwhile, economic strife in the city is fomenting dissatisfaction among its mercantile class that is a hair's breadth away from turning into outright revolution.
Within the city, a disenchanted playwright named Ori Cuiraz is growing sick and tired of the "all talk no action" policy that the Caucus, a loose group of merchants opposed to the government, seems intent on following. Ori seeks out a popular rebel figure named Toro, who, word has it, actually plans to assassinate New Crobuzon's mayor, and toward this end meets up with a curious tramp named Spiral Jack, once a follower of another legendary rebel hero.
Outside the city, another group of desperate figures led by Judah Low — who has the magecraft to create golems out of almost anything, including air — and his merchant/rebel lover Cutter seek another possible resolution to the building crisis at home: the Iron Council, a nearly-mythic gang of renegade railway workers who, years back, successfully fought against the heartless working conditions their employers kept them under during New Crobuzon's expansionist fever. Now the survivors of the rebellion roam the distant landscape on the train they hijacked, which has now mushroomed into a little city all its own. If the Iron Council is found and can be persuaded to return to New Crobuzon, it is believed, it would be a triumphant boost to the morale of the rebel forces in the city, a sign that it is truly possible to fight against corrupt leadership and win. Judah Low was with the Iron Council at its inception, and holds out hope he can win them over.
The backstory of the Iron Council, which is also the backstory of Judah Low, is the book's most compelling sequence, and one that at its best moments lives up to the achievements of The Scar. Certainly Miéville brings his own socialist leanings into his world-building with a passion. In about 150 pages Miéville covers a broad swath of story, detailing Judah Low's own history, his discovery of his golem-creating art, his joining the railway gangs, and the incident (a simple thing: the pay is held up) that starts with a strike and eventually erupts into a full-blown war. It's a terrific, eye-popping piece of storytelling — and the image of the runaway Iron Council, a "perpetual train" traveling a makeshift track that is constantly being built ahead with the rails that are pulled up from behind, is a deliriously inspired bit that is pure China Miéville. But nothing that comes after in the book lives up to it.
You might have noticed plot elements in the synopsis up to now that would seem to be commentary on numerous real-world events, both current and historical. There were times reading Iron Council when I wondered if Miéville intended New Crobuzon here to represent America. One could certainly draw parallels between New Crobuzon's expansionism via railroad with America's own in the 19th century, and it would certainly jibe with Miéville's anti-laissez-faire-capitalism politics. But any relationship between New Crobuzon's war with Tesh and American military misadventures like the war in Iraq or the "War on Terror" is probably coincidental (although Tesh is rumored to have some weapons of magical destruction up its sleeve). Miéville has never been one to trade in obvious social commentary via transparent metaphors.
But he's also never been one to bore the daylights out of readers with tedious, drawn-out battle scenes that lack strong protagonists you can root for, either. There's no one in Miéville's rogue's gallery of unlikely heroes who is all that appealing this time. In fact I barely noticed at one point when one major character died. For the most part, despite the occasional setpiece in which Miéville reminds us just how compelling and vital a writer he can be, much of Iron Council comes across as the sophomore slump one book late. Miéville seems to be going through the motions, and now and then, the novel suffers implausibilities, something Miéville's never had before. I couldn't really buy that the Iron Council would still, after all these years, be thought of by New Crobuzon's government as such a threat that the city would continue to send militia thousands of miles across the landscape to hunt them down — especially at a time when New Crobuzon is having to deal with both civil insurrection and war with a neighbor. ("General principles" isn't a good enough reason.)
One reader — not a Miéville fan — said to me recently, "I think he's about ten years ahead of his time." Whatever the case, I'm confident it won't be nearly that long before Miéville once again astonishes me as he has before.