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Iron Council by China Miéville
Review by Drew Bittner
Del Rey / Random House HCVR  ISBN/ITEM#: 0345464028
Date: July 27, 2004 List Price 24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

As if an attack by extradimensional demon-butterflies wasn't bad enough?

Warning: Here There Be Spoilers


China's Q&A at Politics and Prose

China's interview with John Berlyne for SFRevu
In the wilderness, a wretched band of misfits and exiles seek a man whose words have inspired them to acts of madness and desperation. Led by Cutter, they seek Judah Low, golem-maker and visionary, who will lead them to the renegade Iron Council.

Thus is set in motion a chain of events that will shake the city of New Crobuzon to its very core.

China Miéville's fourth novel (the third to be set in the world of New Crobuzon) primarily follows three characters: Cutter, Judah and streetwise Ori Ciuraz. Cutter's grim devotion guides a handful of self-exiles from the city into the wilds to a rendezvous with Judah. Judah is their link to the band of insurrectionists who broke their shackles, commandeered the resources of the railroad line they served (in various ways) and ventured deep into the wilderness.

Cutter, representing the seditious Caucus in New Crobuzon, wants to find the Iron Council. He wants to bring the Council back to the city, where (it is hoped) they will overthrow the tyrants and establish a new, just society.

Although New Crobuzon is fighting the city-state Tesh, the Caucus (led by the enigmatic, bull-helmeted Toro) will achieve its goals using whatever tools are handy. Ori, a lowlife and petty operator on the streets of the city, is drawn into the murky world of sedition. He begins as a thief, but embraces the goals of the Caucus with the enthusiasm of a true believer. However, events transpire that cause him to question his newfound faith?

As Judah, Cutter and the Iron Council contemplate a return to the city, the Militia of New Crobuzon is distracted by escalating dangers both mundane and mystical, unaware that their peril is far greater than they suspected. Small outbreaks of weirdness are the harbingers of something truly awful coming, signs that the end of New Crobuzon approaches.

China Miéville does not write easy-reading novels. The books are weighty, packed full of heavy ideas and transcendent philosophy. What is the nature of civil disobedience? What are the demands of integrity and ideology, and how do they tear men apart? Fantastic imagery--such as the nightmarish Cacotopic Stain (a surreal badlands like a fusion of Bosch and Stephen King's Dark Tower)--and incredible beings (such as the biomechanical hybrid fReemade and the scarab-headed khepri) are the vehicles for social introspection - and an awful lot of "damn, that's cool!" stuff.

Miéville also doesn't write two-dimensional characters. Stock fantasy archetypes such as the fighter, the thief, the magic-user don't exist in his books, except as self-aware caricature. Rather, Judah is presented as a self-taught master. He learned the arts of golem-making through trial and error, his thoughts and theories far in advance of those around him. His involvement in the story comes as much from his attachment to an ex-lover as it does from ideology or outrage at the cruel treatment of the railroad crews. Events very quickly surpass the control or comprehension of those who initiate them, much like real life.

The characters, however, do not overshadow their setting. Miéville's New Crobuzon is a catch-all for mythological and fantastic odds and ends, a place akin to Moorcock's Melnibon or Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork: it is a character in its own right, with oddities and eccentricities, loved and hated by its people in equal measure. It is to cities what jazz fusion is to music, open to limitless possibility while nevertheless embracing (and cherishing) the mundane. Magic exists alongside steampunk contraptions, alien races mingle with humanity, and byzantine politics co-exist with scrappy barroom freethinkers and troublemakers.

It is not possible to breeze through a book like Iron Council, nor should a reader deprive himself of the opportunity to savor the words, the people and the world Miéville offers. This is a book that requires more of the reader than simply eye-brain linkage; the brain must chew over the ideas offered and actively engage the material. It is a triumph of the form that TV and movies cannot offer in the same way. Take the time to enjoy this book, because there are precious few like it.

Highly recommended.

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