Anatomy of a Revolution–China Mieville’s “Iron Council”

I’ve reviewed two or three of China Miéville’s books before, and it’s important to say that each one, even those taking place in the same imaginative world, are all unique from each other.  Perdido Street Station, the first of three books about New Crobuzon, a world-class city state of Bas-Lag, was not available from the library when I first started, so I picked up with the second book, The Scar, read and reviewed it, and now I’ve finished the third book, Iron Council, and have some remarks which I hope are pertinent to make about it.  By the time I get to the original book, Perdido Street Station, I should be able to read it as a sort of prequel, and I’m sure I will still enjoy it.  But on with Iron Council.

Whereas The Scar took place on the sea and was in a sort of middle-time, with its emphasis on New Crobuzon as a world sea power, Iron Council shows the city many years later torn apart from without and within by a war with the powerful Tesh sea-lords and thaumaturges, and by the anarchy and rebellion of its disadvantaged and dissenting citizens.  The so-called Iron Council is a group of rebels who have taken over a train which was supposed to cross the continent to the “greater glory” of New Crobuzon.  But instead of building a railway from the East to the West, as was the mission of the man in charge, a mad visionary named Weather Wrightby, the Iron Councillors–composed of the free people, the enslaved “Remade” peoples (who have been physically altered with animal and machine parts by the government of New Crobuzon to punish them for offenses), and the peoples of other kinds of life forms who have been maltreated by the government–have taken off with the train across continent by laying down tracks and then taking them up behind as the train passes.  They then re-use the ties and rails in front of the train again, and continue repeating the process, making it difficult for the government militia to follow them.

Meanwhile, back in New Crobuzon, the many different factions in rebellion who are loosely loyal to a central Caucus of rebels, yet often can’t agree among themselves about goals and resources, take inspiration from the tales they hear at a distance about the Iron Council, and sporadically there are citizens going back and forth from one group to the other, carrying messages and forming alliances.  Each group has its difficulties and trials, and the book shows these in detail:  for the Iron Councillors and their followers, it’s a matter of staying alive through a rough journey across an unknown continent with dangers such as smokestone (smoke which rises unpredictably from the earth like a geyser and creates a stone figure from whatever it touches) and the cacotopic stain, a portion of the land wherein everything flows and slides, including the landscape and the strange beasts that emerge from it.  The travellers themselves are sometimes suddenly made to shift shape and die horrible deaths in the peculiar effluvia of the terrain, and yet they manage to emerge and sow in their path villages and homesteads by the train’s road.

But as dreadful visitations from the magicians of Tesh act upon the city of New Crobuzon, so at the same time the government sees an opportunity to crack the whip again over its escapees; the militia has circled the continent by water, and approached from the West to get at the Iron Councillors, hoping to end their ability to inspire revolution amongst the Caucus and revolutionaries at home in the city.  The book is bifurcated, with some chapters telling the tale of Ori, a young revolutionary in the city, and the friends and cohorts he finds, and other chapters telling the tale of Cutter and Judah Low (a golem-maker of rare quality) and their friends and associates.  As the book works toward its close, representatives of the two groups come together in the city and try to fight the government as one, yet the many factions, the uncertain information, and the massive effort aimed against them keep them constantly off-balance.  This picture that Miéville paints is fantastic in some of its specifics, such as the otherworldly monsters and thaumaturgy that invest the story with its horrific aspects, yet the picture is highly true-to-life in its portrait of the interactions of people fighting and trying to win through together.  It is everyman’s story of a revolution, and in the middle of it is the tender and frustrated love of Cutter for Judah Low, an inner story which takes place almost certainly in every revolt where people are close and must trust each other with their lives.

As I have said, the verisimilitude of the book when it comes to the interactions that guide peoples’ allegiances and loyalties in a revolution is spot-on; even those who have never as much as read a factual book about mutiny or rebellion will recognize the players in the drama in the book as they attempt to forge bonds or break ties or achieve their goals.  After all, these faces are those of the real-life heroes and villains we see every day as we listen to the news, gossip about celebrities and political figures, and vote someone into or out of office.  Granted, the book is fiction and is about an extreme season in a country’s history; yet I believe you too will begin to feel that the characters in this book remind you of someone you have heard about from the daily news, some rebel or warlord or senator.  In China Miéville’s fantasy/science fiction, we constantly deal with the real, and see the shadows of a past, present, and perhaps of a future familiar to us.  I won’t give away the book’s ending, but I will say that it is “lyrical,” as the blurb writer on the cover says, and is in some ways the only possible ending which could walk evenly between euphoria and despair; give the book a read sometime soon, and I predict that you too will be impressed with this author’s outstanding ability to provoke, entertain, and teach with a new voice.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

2 responses to “Anatomy of a Revolution–China Mieville’s “Iron Council”

  1. I do enjoy books that have echoes of this world in them, the more you talk of Mieville the more I need to pick up a book or three. Books with depth to provide escapism are always welcome but to be able to layer a world and capture the imagination in a more literary way is the icing on the cake.


    • I have to go back now to the very beginning and read “King Rat,” which I think is his first book, as far as I know. Then, there’s one called “Un Lun Dun,” which looks like a children’s or young adult book, and there’s a book of short stories, I don’t remember the name. It’s funny how easily this author seems, as you say, to maintain a literary resonance while writing fantasy–and his fantasy is “hard licks,” it’s not really escapism in the precise sense of the word, because there are hard realities pictured in it. I just posted on “Kraken” today, another of his, and have out from the library “Perdido Street Station,” which if I read it by next week, I’ll try to comment on. Please do read him–I would be interested in reading any posts you might find he generated for you (we could form a not-too-secret fan club!).


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