Iron Council by China MiévilleJuly 28, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
Tags: China Mieville
It’s always disappointing when a young, up-and-coming author seems to take a step back. Since in the SF genre in particular old authors have a well-established tendency to fall off the literary turnip truck, fans watch hawkishly for any signs of weakness on the part of their favorite authors. I wouldn’t call Iron Council a sign of weakness per se. Miéville didn’t take a step back with this novel so much as convince me that The Scar might have been a bit of an accident. Miéville’s strengths as a writer have always been his vigorous imagination and his evocative description. Both these traits are again on display here, but Miéville set the standard so high in Perdido Street Station and The Scar that I think any story that involved New Crobuzon again was bound to be a bit of a disappointment…Miéville is most exciting when he is blazing new territory.
What makes The Scar Miéville’s best work is its interesting characters and tight plot. Perdido was a bloated, loosely woven novel where the main plot didn’t begin until hundreds of pages into the book. Iron Council is also a bloated, loosely woven novel. The plot begins more or less right away, but moves exceedingly slowly for a long time. It’s also a fair amount shorter than the previous two Bas Lag books and has more text that feels like padding than both put together. There’s nothing wrong with a slow buildup, but unfortunately Miéville isn’t able to follow through. The resolution, which I will not discuss here in this non-spoiler review, was not satisfying.
The other characteristic of Iron Council is it is Miéville’s most ideological book yet. Many of his fans probably did not realize he is a Marxist, but it’s pretty obvious here. There’s nothing wrong with holding such political beliefs or letting them tint your narrative as they did in his previous books. However, here he brings his ideas to the forefront, and if this book wasn’t so focused on New Crobuzon at the expense of the Council mentioned in the title it would almost be a utopian novel along the lines of Walden Two. The trouble with all of this is Miéville writes fantasy. The genre gives his imagination carte blanche. However, by introducing strong political themes he forces the reader to evaluate them within the context of his world. Suddenly his world doesn’t hold together nearly as well as it did. I’m not going to try to do a point by point critique here, but some questions: Where does the food for New Crobuzon’s extremely dense population come from if the surrounding land is sparsely populated wastes? How does the ruthlessly totalitarian government of New Crobuzon find enough willingly complicit servants to staff its massive bureaucratic and enforcement mechanisms? Finally, and being vague to not spoil anything, the city seems to be able to produce troops out of a hat in the last third of the book, despite supposedly being on the wrong end of a gruesome and morale-sapping war.
Iron Council is not a bad book, but I hold Miéville to high standards. His character work here (not discussed due to spoilers) is perhaps the worst of his four published novels, and it may also be the least imaginative of his books. Nevertheless it is still good enough relative to the field that it is a book I would recommend, though not as anyone’s first Miéville book. Any of his previous three would be a better place to start.