Iron Council: A step down from earlier books but still quite strong

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review China Mieville Iron CouncilIron Council by China Mieville

Iron Council is Miéville’s third book set in his created world. While not really a trilogy as is normally thought of, since each book can stand independent of the others, it’s probably best to have at least read Perdido Street Station since that book gives the most full description of the world’s background — its various races, politics, technologies, magics, economics, etc. In this book, the city of Perdido Street Station is at war both with a vague outside enemy known as the Tesh and with itself, as it is being torn apart by economic, political, and racial tensions. The impending civil war was foreshadowed years ago when the oppressed workers of the transcontinental railroad mutinied against their corporate overseers and fled to start their own free state. That semi-mythical state has served as a symbol of hope to those back in the city and now a small group aims to find it before the city destroys it in order to send a crushing message to its current revolutionaries.

In comparison to the first two Iron Council slips a little bit, but since Perdido Street Station and The Scar set such a high standard, that really isn’t too harsh a criticism. While so much of recent fantasy or science fiction simply replays the same shopworn chords, or at best minor variations of them, Miéville offers true originality. The depth and range of inventiveness which made both Perdido Street and The Scar such pleasures to read is equally evident here in Iron Council. Some of that inventiveness drives major parts of the story, such as the art of golem-making for instance, displayed in a joyful buffet of detailed options. Much of the time it appears in the form of a throwaway line, each new one adding another layer of richness to the world he’s created. Despite the novel’s length, there are times you just wish he’d digress for an embedded short story to explain one of those throwaway lines.

There is a richness of theme as well as setting here. Miéville plays with all sorts of genre cliches, especially the Western and the Quest stories, and the novel takes seriously its politics and economics, as well as its ethics. There are big ideas here, big questions, and none are addressed simplistically or easily. The characters and situations are realistic, fraught with shadowy motivations and unintended consequences.

Structurally, Iron Council follows three major characters and shifts point-of-view among them, doing so smoothly and skillfully. The plot is interrupted by a long flashback and while this could have been handled as clumsy exposition, in this case it works completely, opening up another interesting storyline without slowing the book’s movement as a whole.

Where Iron Council falls short of its predecessors is in its characters. They don’t quite have the fullness or the intensity of characters in the first two books. The three main characters are each interesting in their own right, but never seemed fully drawn to me, while the side characters were mere pale echoes, never eliciting much concern for what happened to them. The story itself, perhaps by its more political nature, is also less compelling than the plots of the first two, though it never really failed to hold interest. There were a few places it might have dragged a bit, but these were few and never lasted very long, and the ending more than made up for those few occasions.

In the end, Iron Council was perhaps slightly disappointing, but only relative to Perdido Street Station and The Scar, two standout intelligent works of fiction. If you’ve read earlier Miéville, you’ll want to read Iron Council just to re-enter his richly unique world. If you haven’t read any Miéville yet, I strongly recommend Iron Council, but even more strongly recommend you come to it after having read the first two.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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