Imagine science and technology came to Middle-Earth, though magic continued to thrive. Now imagine that in place of hobbits, orcs, elves, and ents, you have steam-cyborgs, amphibious vodyanoi, insect-headed khepri, vegetable cactacae, ab-dead vampires, and a good many other races. In place of epic heroism, imagine people so morally murky that Sauron would walk away from the worst of them in disgust. Mix SF, fantasy, steampunk, and historical epic, people the result with psychologically complex (and complexed) characters, and have a gifted writer tell that world's tales. The world is Bas-Lag, created by China Miéville. He introduced it in Perdido Street Station and revisited it in The Scar, both extraordinary books by an extraordinary literary talent.
In July, 2004 he published his third and most political Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council.
Author: China Miéville
Title: Iron Council
First Published: July 2004
Its headlamps were eyes now, predictably, bristling with thick wire lashes, its cowcatcher a jawful of protruding teeth. The hug tusks of wilderness animals were strapped and bolted to them. The front nub of its chimney wore a huge welded nose, the smokestack ajut from it in nonsense anatomy. Sharpened girders gave it horns. And behind that enormous unwieldy face the engine was crowded with trophies and totems. The skulls and chitin headcases of a menagerie glared dead ferocity from its flanks: toothy and agape, flat, eyeless, horned, lamprey-mouthed with cilia-teeth, bone-ridged, shockingly human, intricate. Where they had them the trophies' skins were tanned, drabbed by preservation, bones and teeth mazed with cracks and discoloured by smoke. The befaced engine wore dead like a raucous hunter god.
Some time after the events of the first two novels, industrialists from the sprawling, corrupt city of New Crobuzon set out to build a transcontinental railway. A rebellion by workers and slaves creates the Iron Council and the Perpetual Train, a city built on and around the locomotives.
Years later, a war fought on dubious grounds fosters revolt within New Crobuzon itself. Beset by war, racism, rebellion, and a pernicious hex, the city faces its greatest crisis. Meanwhile, representatives of the socialist New Crobuzon Collective set out to find the legendary Iron Council.
Miéville handles fictional history and geography as though writing about a real place, albeit one where impossibilities abound. He has thought through the implications of the various fantastic elements as few other authors have. Ever wonder about how a modern war might be fought in a world where magic-- thaumaturgy-- exists? What an underground political meeting would look like in a city shared by various sentient species? The direction the Industrial Revolution might take in such a place? Miéville has given these things a lot of consideration.
Three central characters' stories unfold against the broader history. Judah Lowe learns and develops the art of golem-making, and applies it ways that go far beyond the familiar legend. He makes tiny golems of sticks to pull minor heists, but he also shapes forces of nature into robotic servants-- with troubling results. Cutter leads the search, during the time of revolution, to find the legendary Iron Council and enlist their aid. Ori, an opponent of New Crobuzon's corrupt regime finds himself drawn to its opponents, and finds his life strangely entwined with that of the mysterious rebel, Toro.
The book has its weaknesses. The opening pages prove more confusing than necessary, and they read like the well-written description of last weekend's role-playing game. Despite Miéville's excellent, oddball style and wild creations, this section became quite tedious: a dangerous thing in a novel's opening.
The first two novels, Perdido Street Station and The Scar reinforce each other, but they remain separate novels, and one can enjoy one without knowing the other. Iron Council, while not in any sense a sequel, frequently references events from the first novel in ways that require an understanding only a reading of Perdido Street Station would bring. Miéville, an author who excels in description, fails to provide any of certain key species and elements which he handled in the earlier books. These aspects may alienate some readers.
Miéville fleshes out a world we've visited in two previous novels, and therefore this novel seems less innovative than its predecessors. Other elements seem derivative. The Tardy, while given a well-considered origin, seemed a little too much like Tolkien's ents, not only in their nature but in the brief role they play. However, Miéville's imagination continues to produce wonders: a city built on a gigantic tortoise, fRemade humans, golem-traps, and centipedes the size of pythons.
He also remains one of fantasy's best-living prose stylists. While this book has nothing to equal the most powerful sections of the earlier novels, certain passages will remain with you for some time.
Iron Council, more so than the first two novels, has been influenced by Mieville's socialist politics. Now, one needn't share the author's views to enjoy the books, any more than one needs to be a Monarchist to take pleasure in Tolkien's. However, the need to make a political point can cause writers to misstep, particularly in the eyes of those who have different ideological inclinations. One of the few weak points in The Scar occurs near the ending, when a politically-charged event happens far too easily, seemingly because it suits Miéville's politics. In general, however, his politics inform his writing, and do not overwhelm it. We merely see how politics play out in his world, along with magic, science, and individual and group effort. He also subjects his ideology to the novel's anti-romantic tone. The revolutionaries are far from pure, and as prey as anyone else to dubious ethics, questionable motives, and other human failings.
The novel's open ending features a remarkable image, obviously intended to have symbolic resonance. Like the political elements, it works well in the context of the novel. However, the temptation may be present to read it allegorically. Doing so will stir some readers-- and diminish the impact for others.
Iron Council, in my opinion, does not live up to the lofty standards set up the first two novels. However, it remains better than most fantasy being sold. I would, however, recommend that you first read Perdido Street Station and The Scar. If you enjoy these, spend some time with the Council.