China Miéville – The Iron Council (2004)

China Miéville’s The Iron Council falls into a somewhat enigmatic group of literary genres. Though part of the larger “speculative fiction” genre, The Iron Council is a decidedly unique book and difficult to definitively label. It might be classified as one or all of the following: new weird, cyberpunk, dystopian fiction, steampunk, horror fantasy, weird fiction, fantasy noir, modern pulp fiction or future noir. If The Iron Council were a movie, think Bladerunner meets A Clockwork Orange, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, written by Neil Gaiman and produced by Tim Burton.

Now that I have thoroughly confused you with that comparison, I will try my best to keep the premise of the book short and sweet. The book’s plot centers on two interrelated storylines following the lives and struggles of New Crobuzoners striving to overthrow the ruling totalitarian government. New Crobuzon is a sprawling urban city-state governed by an authoritarian oligarchy (masquerading as a democracy) headed by a nefarious and faceless “Mayor”. One plot arc follows two men, Cutter and Judah, whose purpose is to seek out the aid of “The Iron Council”, a legendary congregation of New Crobuzon insurrectionists living in hidden exile. The other storyline deals with Ori, a passionate young man living in New Crobuzon’s slums. Ori begins as a romantic revolutionary reading about and discussing the dream of a free and transformed New Crobuzon but quickly becoming an active and often violent underground rebel.
To put it simply, I enjoyed this novel tremendously. Miéville is a masterful storyteller and in The Iron Council he has created a stunning and distinct universe to which his readers are transported. Not overly verbose or reliant on flowery descriptions (though his expansive vocabulary may inspire you to keep a dictionary handy), Miéville paints a dark yet beautiful portrait of the city of New Crobuzon and its inhabitants that is both strange and familiar. Readers will conjure images of their own cities and histories and overlay this with bizarre imagined creatures, improbable architecture and other supernatural elements to create a visual patchwork that is Miéville’s world. Beyond the aesthetic quality of Miéville’s writing, the novel’s dialogue is succinct and emotive and, as a result, extremely real. This simplicity and authenticity comes as a relief when compared to what is found in most other speculative fiction books: tedious, grandiose and simply unconvincing dialogue.
The general tone of the book, like the dialogue, is defined by its gritty realism. Let me make this clear, The Iron Council is not a children’s book. Scenes depicting gratuitous violence, offensive language and polygamous sex are commonplace. The ubiquity of this grimness is not, however, overwhelming. It is simply the reality of life as the oppressed, of life in the slums, of life as society’s forgotten. Miéville adeptly harnesses the bleakness that is the protagonists’ existence and is able to create a number emotionally rousing, unforgettable scenes of both despair and of joy. This rare ability to effectively channel and produce a diversity of emotions in his readers makes Miéville a truly outstanding author and has made him one of my personal favorite young talents.
Yet despite these many successes, Miéville and this novel are not without its flaws. Most notably, The Iron Council suffers from a complete absence of non-human or non-male points of view. Characters such as Ann Hari and Thick Shanks are certainly figures that fit these criteria and who play a central role in the events of the novel, but their points of view are a missed opportunity by the author. The use of these character’s points of view and the subsequent broadening of the reader’s understanding of the insurrection and New Crobuzon’s gender and racial divisions would have created a great deal more depth in Miéville’s exploration of the diverse yet unified psyches of a revolution and the transcendant spirit of all peoples. The omission of a map is also particularly grating as any sense of distance, topography and borders among the various lands is often lost. Lastly, the narrative lacks any sort of historical foundation. Events in New Crobzuon’s past are mentioned occasionally throughout and the long-term character development of Judah Low is partially explored, but readers are left asking a few basic and essential questions: How did New Crobuzon society come to this point? Have the people of this city-state ever been “free”? What are the origins of our protagonists? What are the Mayor’s motivations?
In the end, though, the answers to these questions are not what is important. These questions are not what this novel is about. Nor is The Iron Council just about a fantastical world filled with creatures like the vodyanoi, cactacae and khepri people, and people who perform hex magic, somaturgy and elementalism. This novel is about racism and class struggle. It’s about environmentalism, human selfishness and greed. It’s about faith, sacrifice, courage and most importantly, it’s about absolute and unconditional love. The Iron Council is the type of book that is best described as an emotional symphony. Expertly orchestrated by Miéville, The Iron Council left me breathless throughout, and I would recommend it to all fantasy and non-fantasy fans alike.
Accompanying Drink Suggestion:
Yuengling Black & Tan
As The Iron Council’s future noir genre suggests, a darker, heavier beer accompanies this novel quite well. The flavorful roasted taste of Yuengling’s Porter is combined with and complimented by the lighter hints of caramel from the lager, just as The Iron Council’s oftimes nightmarish and grisly scenes are complimented by the novel’s underlying themes of love, redemption and the triumphant spirit.
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Works by:
H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Iain Sinclair

4 out of 5 stars


3 responses to “China Miéville – The Iron Council (2004)

  1. The Scar is my favorite of his. The City and The City is more contemporary, and yes, a complete departure. It’s kind of a weird murder mystery thing? If you tag the review with China Mieville, my wordpress tag surfer will pick it up right away. Have you heard about this new one he’s got coming out, Embassytown? it looks awesome!

  2. I adore China Mieville. at first glance, his horror/fantasy elements seem over the top, but then you read the book those elements make perfect sense. I’d put Iron council under new weird/steampunk, perhaps?

    Iron Council is wonderful, it’s part of Mieville’s loosely related Bas-Lag series. the books take place in the same world, and occassionaly characters are mentioned from other books, but they all function just fine as stand alones: Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council. The Scar is my favorite of the group.

    btw, accompanying drink suggestion? that is brilliant!!!

    • Thank you for the comment (you are our first newcomer)! I have read The Scar, Perdido Street Station and The Iron Council so far (really enjoyed them all), and I have The City & The City on my bookshelf right now. From what I gather, it is a total departure from his Bas-Lag-based novels (the only type that I have read so far), so I am excited to check it out. I am going to do a few other reviews before then, but I should probably be done with The City & The City in a few weeks. In the meantime, keep coming back to check out my reviews!

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