Iron Council is the third book set in Miéville's Bas-Lag world. I read the The first novel, Perdido Street Station some years ago and the second, The Scar, in August during my holiday. Although I thought Perdido Street Station had some problems, I liked The Scar an awful lot so I was very much looking forward to this third book. These books may share a world, Iron Council is not a sequel to either The Scar or Perdido Street Station. Miéville mentions events in Perdido Street Station, this novel can be read without having read the earlier books. Even if you have, Iron Council will not be what you expect, each of these three books take very different directions. Miéville was clearly not aiming for a standard fantasy trilogy when he wrote these novels.
The city of New Crobuzon is shaking on it's very foundations. War, revolution and riots are keeping the authorities more than occupied and political violence, strikes and other subversives activities are a daily occurrence. Although the mayor is trying to suppress the rumours it is clear that the war with Tesh is not going well. Tales by horribly scarred veterans of battles gone wrong reach all who wish to hear. Never before has the government of New Crobuzon needed so much repression to keep things under control. The city is a powder keg about to explode. A desperate company of renegades leaves the city on a mission to find the legendary Iron Council. The perpetual train, a legend that may bring the city hope. To find it our they must cross an entire continent every bit as strange as the city itself. Strange creatures roam the plains they must cross and even the supernatural is never far away. Reality on this continent is not what the city folks are used to but to rescue their city, they will have to face it.
One of the points I didn't like about Perdido Street Station was Miéville's tendency to use every word in the dictionary to describe the city. Vivid though these descriptions were, they made the book feel a bit overwritten. The Scar, which is mostly set outside New Crobuzon showed a rich vocabulary as well but I didn't think it was nearly so distracting in that book. In Iron Council we get flashes of what Miéville did in Perdido Street Station again, which is one of the reasons it took me a week to read, despite it being the shortest of the three. The story is told by three different narrators, one a dissatisfied revolutionary in New Crobuzon itself, the second a man involved in the original breaking free of the Iron Council and the third is a man who join the former councillor in a bit to find the current location of the train. The breaking free of the council is set years before the other two so the novel is not entirely in chronological order and Miéville takes quite a bit of time make the reader see how these three stories intersect.
The novel may be tough going in places, there are certain aspects of it I very much enjoyed. One of the interesting aspects of this novel is the way in which Miéville's political ideas surface. In fact it is probably the most politically charged of the three. Miéville's no stranger to Marxist political theory and even ran for the House of Commons once for the Social Alliance in 2001. In Iron Council the revolution Miéville describes, bears similarities to what you'd find in left wings movements all over Europe in the 20th century. The strikes, the spreading of illegal newspapers and pamphlets and brutal way in which this movement is being repressed could have been Berlin shortly after the end of the Great War. Dissatisfaction is almost tangible in New Crobuzon.
While a significant part of the novel is set in the city, a large part of Iron Council deals with the exploits of this legendary company. Originally an ambitious plan to build a transcontinental rail road, the Iron Council has developed into a very peculiar society. Cut loose form its corporate masters in the city, it has evolved into a community without a monetary economy, lead by leaders elected by various groups within the community. What New Crobuzon's rebels are talking about, the labourers of the Council have created. Not a situation that can last, years after their initial except the city is still trying to get to them. And besides, isn't it any good revolutionary's duty to spread the revolution?
This part of the story is very much influenced by the western genre. The train, the badlands they are travelling, hostile natives, unruly labourers and boom towns, it is al clearly reminiscent of that genre but Miéville gives it an entirely different twist. Unfortunately this part of the tale also contain a lot of descriptive passages. Miéville's vivid world is one of his strength but personally I feel he tends to overdo it. The scenes on the open spaces of the continent and the supernatural creatures they encounter were almost too strange at times, providing an imaginary overload to the reader, that for me at least, was hard to process.
I suppose you could say Iron Council, while thematically wildly different, shares certain traits with both of the previous books. I didn't think it was a great match though. There were certain aspects of the story I enjoyed but as a novel I didn't think it works quite as well as The Scar or even Perdido Street Station. A wildly inventive climax of the story is not really enough to overcome the feeling that the surreal, somewhat chaotic scenes in New Crobuzon's hinterland and the revolutionary activity in the city had real problems fitting into one story. Although Iron Council is an interesting work I didn't like it as much as The Scar. That being said, the Bas-Lag novels are a fascinating attempt to send the fantasy genre in new directions and as such, all three are very much worth reading.
Title: Iron Council
Author: China Miéville
First published: 2004