Recall in my review of The Scar how I was whining about my opinion of China Miéville and his novels remaining relatively constant? How I wanted to read something different, something I could say didn't rank equally with the other three novels by him that I have read?
This is the story of why I should have been more careful with my wishing.
I knew something was wrong—perhaps I should say off—almost from the beginning of this book. The opening was grandiose in Miéville's usual style (which, if you've read Miéville, is explanation enough; if you haven't—why haven't you?) but our first meeting with the main characters is more confusing than enlightening. Worse still, none of the characters are all that interesting. I didn't care about Cutter, Elsie, or Pomeroy. I didn't care about Ori or Spiral Jacobs or Toro. I certainly didn't care for Judah, who seems like a monumental jerk wrapped inside a coat of comfortable self-sacrifice.
Characterization in The Iron Council is not sloppy, because nothing Miéville does is sloppy. From purple prose to passive voice, Miéville writes with impunity—and a vocabulary to show it—because the end result is something captivating and beautiful; the novel itself is work of art. So it's not sloppy; it is, unfortunately, rather lacklustre. Both of the preceding Bas-Lag novels, Perdido Street Station and The Scar, had a strong central protagonist: Isaac and Bella, respectively. We lack such a protagonist in The Iron Council. The present-day narrative alternates between two convergent plots, with Cutter and Ori providing a perspective for each respective storyline. The middle of the book tells the genesis of the Iron Council and follows Judah; ironically, while Judah is my least favourite character, this is probably the best part of the entire novel.
Cutter follows Judah out into the unexplored wilderness beyond New Crobuzon. Judah is searching for the Iron Council, a runaway train of railworkers, Remade slaves, and prostitutes. He knows that New Crobuzon is finally sending an expeditionary force to wipe out the train, and he wants to find the Iron Council first. Cutter follows Judah not because he has faith in the Iron Council but because he has faith in Judah (this point is important to the rest of the plot); Cutter is in fact in hopeless, unrequited love with Judah.
Neither Cutter nor Judah seem very real or three-dimensional; they are just names, with the barest amount of personality. So I didn't feel a lot of sympathy for Cutter as he allows Judah to manipulate him:
There were none of the chances Cutter had wanted, no opportunity to tell the stories of the Collective, to ask for the stories of the Council. It was rushed and ugly. He felt desperately angry as the Councillors prepared to die. He felt as well a sense of his own failure, that he was letting down Judah. You knew I couldn't do it, you bastard. That's why you're still there. Getting ready some plan or other for when I fail. Still, even though Judah had expected it, Cutter hated that he had not succeeded.
The dynamic that Miéville creates between these two is brilliant, and it's a rather timeless tragedy. In this case, however, its characters are not drawn with enough depth, and so the tragic effect is instead rendered a cliché.
Back in New Crobuzon, Ori is the New Crobuzon equivalent of a Marxist disenchanted with all the talk and ready for some good ol' proletariat revolution. The New Crobuzon of The Iron Council is an even grimmer place than the city of Perdido Street Station. The fallout from Isaac's alliance with the Construct Council caused a messy curtailment on the use of constructs throughout the city. Coupled with economic recession and a war with Tesh, and New Crobuzon is under martial law in all but name. These are not fun times. But Ori is tired of reading newspaper articles and meeting with a group of people who all call themselves "Jack" the way a communist uses "comrade." He wants some action.
Ori, like me, should be careful what he wishes for.
He falls in with a group led by Toro, a character who wears a massive helmet forged in the shape of a bull. With the helmet, Toro can sense magical energies and even teleport through space (by charging like a bull and tearing a hole in reality with the helmet's horns). The group plans to assassinate Mayor Stem-Fulcher (remember her from Perdido Street Station?), reasoning that a successful mission would be like beheading the "snake" of Parliament. I'll leave it up to you to guess how well that works out.
I quite enjoyed Ori's storyline, if not Ori himself, and the tale of revolution on the streets of New Crobuzon. It was almost like the good old times back in Perdido Street Station, when the city almost felt alive through Miéville's careful descriptions. Almost, but not quite. New Crobuzon is present in The Iron Council, but it is no longer the front-and-centre locus around which the novel revolves.
Instead, Miéville once again chooses a mobile location as his central focus. This time it's a train instead of a floating city. There's some metaphor to be found within the idea of a train, which is bound to go only where there is a railroad, representing one's freedom. (Indeed, one of the conceits of The Iron Council is that these fugitive railway workers are constantly tearing up the track behind them and laying down new rails before the train. It's odd, but it's very Miéville.) As with so much else of his work, he creates an almost-but-not-quite-romantic vision of life on an ever-changing railscape. Like New Crobuzon and Armada, the citizens of the Iron Council are cosmopolitan; however, the scale of the city is a lot smaller and more constrained. We get a sense of the fragility of the Council—everything is reused, if possible, because their resources are limited—as well as the sense of boundless adventure—they have maps no one in New Crobuzon has. In that respect, the Iron Council is as well-developed, as a "weird city," as any of Miéville's creations.
I'm very ambivalent about the fate of the Iron Council and the ending of the book. Part of me hates it, if only because it seems so inevitable the way Miéville has written it. Part of me enjoys its creativity. It is consistent with my favourite thing about this book, which is its portrayal of the difficulty of staging a class revolution. Ori quickly realizes that it's one thing to begin an uprising and quite another thing to succeed at it; the militia is ruthless, and even the death of New Crobuzon's mayor is not necessarily going to stop them. This real but unattractive truth fuels a lot of the tension in the last part of the book, as well as Judah's final act that affects the Iron Council and everyone aboard it.
If anything, The Iron Council, with its brief allusions to the events of Perdido Street Station, hasjust made me want to reread that first Bas-Lag novel all over again. I want to return to the delightful machinations of Mayor Rudgutter and then-secretary Stem-Fulcher; I want to see them negotiate with the Ambassador from Hell and the Weaver. In addition to these allusions, there are plenty of new, small glimpses at the weird and wonderful world that is Bas-Lag. Once again, Miéville shows that his imagination and his ability to create a world are without parallel. And beyond the worldbuilding lurks a good tale too: The Iron Council is a strong story of standing up to authority and striking, albeit not always succeeding. However, none of its characters could interest me, and I found that to be a massive stumbling block in reading this book. I read it, but I wasn't really into the story. There was no point where I would have been disappointed if something had interrupted me during my reading; I was a casual visitor to Bas-Lag this time. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, per se, but with a writer as good as Miéville, I'm always going to be disappointed when the experience is just casual.