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Iron Council 72

Posted by timothy
from the always-good-to-see-danny-reviews dept.
danny writes "I haven't stopped writing book reviews, it's just been a while since I wrote any suitable for Slashdot. Read on for my review of China Mieville's Iron Council."
Iron Council
author China Mieville
pages 471
publisher MacMillan
rating 5
reviewer Danny Yee
ISBN 0345464028
summary an inventive but disappointing fantasy

The world of the New Crobuzon city-state is loosely based on the European industrial revolution's "steam age", mixed together with an extraordinarily inventive range of fantastic features. People are "remade" into strange forms in punishment factories, there are all kinds of nonhuman sentients -- cactus people, insect-like kephri, and more -- and there are a diverse range of magics. The Mayor and Parliament rule through a brutal Militia, but revolutionary factions abound and a draining war with Tesh is fueling discontent.

Cutter leads a band of insurrectionists from the Caucus, looking for the golem creator Judah. They fight a series of battles as they travel across a war-torn landscape, seeking the semi-mythical Iron Council, a group of railway workers who rebelled and escaped into the wilderness. Meanwhile Ori is involved with the shifting revolutionary factions in New Crobuzon. He joins one of the more violent groups, which eventually launches a plot to assassinate the Mayor.

Much of the "colour" of Iron Council comes from politics, with allusions to historical groups and events, most obviously to various socialist and anarchist movements and to the Paris Commune. It attempts to harness the pathos and power of revolutionary myth and history, but the result is mostly poor pastiche, nowhere approaching the drama of real history. The historical links are weak, often mismatched with the peculiar features of New Crobuzon, and unable to carry the sentiment Mieville tries to invest them with. And there's not enough background for anyone to actually care about the New Crobuzon revolution in its own right: Iron Council has neither actual political philosophy nor social detail nor real people.

Another annoying feature of Iron Council is that everything is subservient to the special effects of the moment. At one point, for example, we read:

"With a thumb of chalk, Spiral Jacobs drew the shape that had given him his name, whispering while he did, and it was of astonishing perfection, a mathematical symbol. And then there were smaller coils coming from its outer skin, and Jacobs ran his hand over it and walked on.

It began to rain as Ori reached the mark Jacobs had made. It did not smear."

But though Ori and Jacobs continue to roam the city, the rain never features again -- it's just a completely ad hoc device to highlight the mysteriousness of the spiral symbols. This is a trivial example, but this kind of thing recurs at different levels throughout Iron Council: strange wondrous monsters are invented, new magics deployed, characters introduced and then disposed of, new words coined -- all to help enhance a single encounter, battle, scene, or piece of dialogue.

Mieville's characterisation is weak. The three central characters manage to get less and less interesting as time goes by, to the point where the deaths of two of them are of no moment. The plot and Mieville's dazzling invention hold Iron Council together and kept me reading to the end, but the overall effect is, apart from a few novel ideas, unmemorable and unlikely to bear rereading. It was no doubt unwise of me to expect more, but the fuss about Mieville and the recommendations of friends had raised my hopes.

Note: I haven't read Mieville's earlier books set in the same world -- Perdido Street Station and The Scar -- but Iron Council is entirely self-contained.


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Iron Council

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  • Quick Review (Score:4, Interesting)

    by rimu guy (665008) * on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:03PM (#12387772) Homepage

    I had previously read Perdido Street Station. PSS was a little hard to get into. But Mieville's writing is such that you can't help but be drawn into the strange milieu of New Crobuzon. I ended up liking it enough that I bought Iron Council on the spot when I saw it.

    I am reading Iron Council now. Again, it is quite hard getting into. The story at the start jumps around temporally and in location. About a third of the way in it settles into a more linear narrative which I find easier to get involved in. After reading PSS I am probably getting more out of the writing than someone hitting New Crobuzon for the first time. With the second book I think Mieville is better able to 'toss off' a fleeting reference to something and for that to actually mean something to the reader.

    Right now I'd say I'll persevere to the end. I like Mieville's writing style. I like the setting. I would prefer I cared a bit more about the characters. And it would be nice if the plot felt like it were building somewhere. I'm driven to finish mostly to find out where the story is going. And a little by wanting to find out more about New Crobuzon. 6/10 so far....

    --
    Your Own Linux Server for $20/month [rimuhosting.com]

    • There's a lot of hype around Mieville, that I don't understand

      I read Perdido Street Station. I thought his mix of steampunk and fantasy was interesting and his writing style is good but the plot wasn't all that great, infact I mostly wanted to know more about the secondary characters and the other races than main story. Meiville seems to have a touch of literary ADD, he tosses a lot of interesting ideas in but doesn't flesh them out.

      • infact I mostly wanted to know more about the secondary characters and the other races than main story

        I can relate to that. The best parts of the book were those that related the POV of secondary chars, such as Mayor Rudgutter. I was hoping for a Motley POV but it never came.

        I did find amusing the fact that New Crobuzon was so important, even Hell had an embassy there.
      • What you think of as his literary ADD is what makes his settings so believable. He treats the reader as someone who inhabits his bizarro-world, letting interesting side details in for local color, but only putting emphasis on the things pertaining to the story itself.
    • Iron Council is Mieville's third book in the world of Bas Lag. The second -- The Scar -- is the best of the bunch. Mieville let the plot get away from him in Iron Council and he didn't flesh things out enough.
  • Self-contained? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by zyklone (8959) on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:03PM (#12387782) Homepage
    No wonder you don't understand the city if you havn't read Perdido Street Station.

    Read the first two books and I might take you seriously.
    • Re:Self-contained? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Thenomain (537937) on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:30PM (#12388015) Homepage
      There are two ways to take Iron Council:

      1) As the next book in the series.
      2) As a book set in the world.

      If you take it as 1, Iron Council is a decent book. I admit I don't like it as much as the previous two, but I didn't throw it across the room in disgust.

      If you take it as 2, I can see why you might. A lot of the inner workings and horrors of the world (and especially the city) are well laid-out in Perdido Street Station. You can get a pretty good idea from reading The Scar, too.

      However, this review goes on about things not being "interesting" without giving any idea of what kinds of standards he is putting them against. Regardless if the reviewer came from Point 1 or Point 2, he didn't attempt to make the review meaningful. It was a horrible review, yeah, but not for the fault of "he shoulda read the other books first".

      He should have, yes. But he should have at least told us he didn't.
      • Note to Self: Okay, he did tell us that he hadn't read the previous books. (How did I miss that?) Someone else has already said "The Reviewer Is Wrong".

        However, Meiville or his publisher should have told us to expect this to require previous reading. Else, there's no reason not to expect a stand-alone book, much like The Scar.
    • The dude used the word pudenda to refer to a dog twice in the same book. For that alone, his book and his thesaurus needs to go into the recycling bin.
    • If a book from a series fails to stand on its own, then it is lacking quality. A good author will make sure the text is self sufficient. That is not to say there isn't a hell of a lot more to be gained from reading the earlier works, but they should not be a requisite. If it is, then publish as a larger work, rather than seperate ones. You will notice that the highly reputable and famous series all are able to stand on their own.
  • by gonerill (139660) on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:04PM (#12387788) Homepage
    Tbe group weblog Crooked Timber [crookedtimber.org] had a mini-symposium [crookedtimber.org] on China Mieville and Iron Council a little while ago, including a long reply from Mieville.
  • by nate nice (672391) on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:06PM (#12387802) Journal
    "it's just been a while since I wrote any suitable for Slashdot..."

    So you've been writing literate reviews?
  • I read _Perdido Street Station_ and _The Scar_ and I thought they were marvelous. If this is... well, not so good... oh well. Nobody's able to write good stuff forever.

    Seems a shame to peter out after only two books, though.
    • *NEVER* rely on some critic's opinion on a book. Tastes are different, and our own social background, education etc. - all things impacting on our reading experience - are different too.

      I for my part have devoured the Iron Council, and I am already longing to read it again. One of these books where you get sad when you realize there are only a few pages left. It allows me to completely submerge into another world, very few authors accomplish this. My 16 year old son thinks the same, he is currently reading
  • Ahhmm!! (Score:4, Funny)

    by floydman (179924) <floydman@gmail.com> on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:11PM (#12387857)
    "been a while since I wrote any suitable for Slashdot"

    Man, any thing is suitable for /., looks like you are new here...

    You can just say "been a while since i wrote anyting"
  • I disagree (Score:3, Insightful)

    by spiffy_dude (762559) on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:12PM (#12387864)
    China Mieville is one of the most creative authors I have had the fortune to hear of. Rather than base a world on Tolkien or folklore, his world is almost completely his own creation. IMHO, Perdito Street Station especially deserves reading and The Scar (his second book) is also very good. Iron Council is definitely the weaker of the three.
    • I agree. The most striking thing about his creativity is how *rare* it seems. He puts a lot more work into his novels than most of his contemporaries, and I think that's a side effect of his political interests. He's trying to *say* something, rather than just tell a quick story, and it encourages craftsmanship. That's my take, anyway. And while I'm offering unsolicited opinions, I'd say he's similar to David Gerrold and Iain M. Banks in that respect - they write meatier books because they're flexing m
      • Not too many books can leave your jaw hanging open at points, but Perdido Street Station certainly did. I'd read this new one based on the strength of the last 2, for sure.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Thanks anyway.
  • by kmcrober (194430) on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:21PM (#12387948)
    The reviewer is wrong; Iron Council is not a self-contained work. All of this is only my opinion, of course, but the trilogy seems to be about the city of New Crobuzon as much as it's about any social or political themes. Even The Scar, which takes place entirely outside the city limits, revolves around New Crobuzon, its people, its culture, and its history. Each of the books builds on the backstory and moods set in the predecessors; the plots aren't interwoven so that you'd *need* to read the others, but you're definately missing a lot of the meat of Iron Council if you haven't read PSS or The Scar.

    I did not enjoy Iron Council nearly as much as PSS or The Scar, not least because Mieville seemed to be shifting the focus more to less interesting characters and politics and away from the city itself. The external events were weak, in comparison to the city-centered parts of the plot, and the political themes seemed forced.

    That's a small complaint, though, in the end. Mieville writes up a storm, and what we do see of New Crobuzon is as compelling and original as ever. I can't wait for his next work; I hope that it's set in the same universe, whether it's another NC exposition or set somewhere else entirely.

    I should mention that I enjoy his non-Bas-Lag fiction as well. I liked King Rat much more than Gaiman's Neverwhere, which is roughly similar but less interesting. King Rat explored some of the same political themes as Iron Council, but in subtler and more interesting ways.

    All in all, read Iron Council only if you're particularly interested in Mieville's political themes or are a dedicated fan of his settings. Given how he builds on the settings and moods of his prior works in the series, you'll enjoy and appreciate the next Bas Lag book more if you've read Iron Council, even if it doesn't float your boat all on its own.
  • I'm a book whore, but quite how can you write reviews before the 'mortals' on slashdot get them - does that not make you a book salesperson?

    Those of you /.'ers thinking Im making it up I refer to a book review on the site for "Voices from Chernobyl"

    Ive just written out a library reserve card for it and it is published in July. Considering its April.... So I should be the first to get it.

    • Its called advanced copies. Publishers usually send off a few to established reviewers.

      A friend of my Mother used to work for the NY Times in their book review section so I have a number of advance copies of books. They usually look like something printed up at Kinkos, slightly smaller than a hardcover, stabled binding with a papercover and no, or black and white cover art. It usually comes with a disclaimer. "This does not represent the final work" etc.

      I have an advance copy of Anne Rice's "Memnoch the D

    • No, this review isn't a pre-publication review. Books are not always published at the same time everywhere in the world. Also, the paperback comes out later than the hardback. Any bibliophile should know this.

  • I read PSS and ultimately could not determine what everyone was so hot about. It's really mediocre writing at it's best. It felt amateur hour to me.

    I also read King Rat. King Rat isn't remarkable in any way but it was at least fun.
  • by klipsch_gmx (737375) on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:30PM (#12388019)
    First off, for those of you new to China Mieville, I would recommend that you begin with "Perdido Street Station" (or "King Rat"), followed up by "The Scar", and only then tackle "Iron Council". While the three books don't form a trilogy in the traditional sense, they nonetheless draw on shared themes and a common setting and history. As such, while "Iron Council" can certainly be read and appreciated by a newcomer to Mieville's writing, there are numerous small references and commonalities that will be missed.

    Fans of Mieville, however, will find in "Iron Council" perhaps his most nuanced and sophisticated writing to date. As usual, the author defies genres, and has produced what would best be described (if one was forced to use labels) as a gothic-western-political-thriller. At the same time, he continues to subvert traditional fantasy elements as well as co-opting elements from other traditions and grounding them in his reality. However, Mieville has also tackled a more challenging structural approach in this novel, as he uses three different voices and two time periods that, while connected by plot threads are separated by decades. Furthermore, the chronologically earlier section comes 130 pages into the book, which in the hands of a less gifted writer would be horribly jarring, but which Mieville pulls of with style.

    The primary story (which is elaborated upon by the flashback) is set some twenty years after the events of Perdido Street Station, and finds New Crobuzon at war with distant Tesh, with discontent at home mounting as the casualties mount and the economy falters. It is a time of turmoil and political dissent bordering on civil war; as options are weighed, one man, Judah Low, goes in search of a near mythical construct whose time may be at hand, Iron Council. To say more would risk severe spoilers, but the real joy of "Iron Council" is that the plot is served so deftly by the underlying themes, and vice versa.

    And those themes are legion, the most obvious one being New Crobuzon's war with Tesh as a parallel with the Iraq war. Likewise, there are economic factors that are akin to the bursting of the .com bubble of the late 1990's. However, Mieville has made it abundantly clear in numerous interviews that he has no interest in spreading his political views (he is a Socialist who has run for Parliament) through his writing, and that holds true here. Rather, these elements serve to ground the story in a believable reality, which allows the reader to accept at face value the fantastic elements. Moreover, even as he subverts everything that is a "norm" of fantasy, Mieville also casts his own views in a realisitic light. For example, the political activists (with whom he obviously sympathizes) frequently make capricious, even brutal decisions, and display very un-liberal traits such as disdain for homosexuals.

    However, as I said, these groundings are mere jumping off points for a much more intriguing exploration, for at its heart "Iron Council" is an exploration of change/history. The groundwork for this is laid in Judah's ability to create golems, which Mieville describes as an intervention, a decision to change the un-living to living. Once the reader recognizes this metaphor, Mieville's intent becomes clear as he considers industry, politics and war (among other things) as interventions into the status quo, as forces for change. In so doing, Mieville quite rightly takes a long view of history in which right and wrong become blurred by the law of unintended consequences. There is a symmetry in his world, almost karmic in its nature, in which actions in the past rebound in unexpected ways in the present. The driving force of history for Mieville is the individual, but as such, he recognizes the fundamental instability this introduces into his novel. People change, there motivations change, and as such, tipping points can never be quite predicted, and will often radically diverge from the expected path.
    • Am I missing something? The parent post seems like a very cogent analysis of the book - why was it modded to -1? Unless there's something grievous that I'm not seeing, mod it up! I'm not sure I agree that intervention is the central metaphor of the book, but it's a very interesting take.

      In regards to your comment on how Mieville treats the brutality and prejudices of his revolutionaries, I agree that he treats them with admirable and impressive realism.

      I assume, based on no knowledge of the man other t
  • I enjoyed it just a tick less than I did The Scar, which I enjoyed just a tick less than Perdido Street Station. What I find interesting is that over the last few years, fantasy has been filled with golems. In addition to Iron Council, you have:
    • Mary Gentle's Ash: A Scret History
    • Lisa Goldstein's The Alchemist's Door
    • Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
    • Thane Rosenbaum's The Golems of Gotham

    It's possible it started with Ted Chiang's brilliant "72 Letters," but I can't prove

  • Inconsistency (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ChatHuant (801522) on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:43PM (#12388128)
    Another annoying feature of Iron Council is that everything is subservient to the special effects of the moment.

    I liked the book (though it's clearly not as good as Perdido Street Station), but I have to agree with this comment. I generally prefer my SF (and horror) to be internally consistent. You accept the initial premise (and if you don't, why are you even reading this book, or seeing this movie?), but everything else should flow logically from here. Most horror flicks, for example, fail miserably at that - one of the reasons why most horror flicks are so bad.

    Some authors can get away with internal inconsistency through continuous invention - Douglas Adams is a good example. Also Terry Pratchett, who, when asked about contradictions between different books in the Discworld series, said that there are no contradictions - there are however alternate pasts.

    China Mieville doesn't even try; he invents new rules, brings in machine gods and joyfully contradicts himself anytime he needs to solve a problem. He's almost like Wile E. Coyote: never twice the same trick. This said, his writing style (which I quite like) hasn't changed much, and he does keep throwing new and interesting things at the reader, so Iron Council is IMHO quite acceptable.
  • by h311sp0n7 (773094) on Friday April 29, 2005 @05:54PM (#12388225) Journal
    As with all major artists' work the first is usually the most creative and energetic and explorative. However, with Iron Council Mieville has not drifted from his roots, only experimented with different interactions of milieu. I read this book when it first came out last year and was engrossed, however, I do think it is on a different level that PSS or the Scar.

    Although not reading an author's previous works allows for a more objective point of view I do believe it would be helpful in setting up New Crobuzon as a back drop. Also, I think the reviewer needs to do a little more analysis on regarding why two of the central character's deaths "are of no moment." The bells and whistles should be going off. Why does it evoke this feeling? How has it evoked this feeling? Is Mieville trying to say something about how the world, other characters, or the readers as an audience react? Or doesn't it matter? Is the lack of "characterization" an allusion to a greater departure of self or in fact a lack of meaning in the world? There are so many questions that a reviewer should ask his/herself before commenting on a work.

    Needless to say, I loved Perdido Street Station and the Scar, however, I do think that Iron Council is a work within itself and what it lacks in an externally driven world more than makes up for it when it unites the two in the "revolution."
  • >Iron Council is entirely self-contained. Not really. Knowledge of the other twoe books provides considerable context. Perdido Street Station is both entirely self-contained and of substantially higher literery quality. The Scar, not as good but better than Iron Council. Amazingly inventive talent that needs to reassert the discipline exhibited in Perdido Street Station.
  • Had heard a lot about Meiville and really didn't find Iron Council to have been worth the effort. A very fully fleshed vision of the city and the land but the characters are just hauled all over it without any strong motivations (well, I wasn't engaged by their motivations if they did exist at any rate).

    On the other hand, recently read The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston, which is another thoroughly alternate reality-style book. However, she(?) attached the reader to a single viewpoint and sticks with i
    • I agree. I actually read "The Scar" and thought that it was a WONDERFUL work. THe characters and the storyline were so well done.

      I picked up "Iron Council" and soaked it up but the ending really put me off. Spiral Jacbos and the golum maker (can't be bothered right now to go look it up) were the coolest characters.

      Meiville has a wonderful universe on his hands and I plan on going back and reading "Perdido Street Station" but I would only reread "The Scar" for a bit of filler for the next book, whatever th
  • There is an interesting interview with China Miéville at http://www.believermag.com/issues/200504/interview _mieville.php [believermag.com].
    I have read both Perdido Street Station and The Scar and enjoyed both of them. The reviewer is right that his characters are sometimes a little hard to care about, but thats not really the point of the books, the setting and writing style really grabbed me. From the interview I linked to, Miéville seems like the quintesential geek author and I would recommend his books to any
  • and a draining war with Tesh is fueling discontent.

    His music will bring anybody down.

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