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Customer Review

61 of 70 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars For Jabber's sake, what a disappointment!, December 26, 2005
This review is from: Iron Council (Paperback)
China Mieville's first two novels set in the world of Bas-Lag gave him a well-deserved reputation as the most important young writer working in the sci fi/fantasy genres today. In Perdido Street Station and The Scar, Mieville created a neo-Dickensian milieu of bizarre, terrible, but deeply compelling grotequeries inhabited by complex, often-conflicted characters. Both narratives gained momentum over hundreds of pages, even as each sprawled further into and then away from the teeming city of New Crubozon, and all of it was illuminated by Mieville's powerfully intelligent, pleasingly baroque prose style.

So, what happened with Iron Council? Mieville's third Bas-Lag book is confusing, meandering, and populated by shallow, underdeveloped, highly unlikeable characters. His writing style is choppy throughout and routinely defies the most basic rules of grammar and usage; perhaps he was aiming for profundity (think David Foster Wallace), but he achieved only preciousness at best, and tedium more often. The narrative-such as it was, given his penchant herein for flashbacks, deus ex machinas, and withheld information-had holes in it one could (pardon the pun) drive a train through. The plot progressed as if he didn't know where it was going when he was writing it. Above all, Iron Council was agonizingly dull-I could hardly wait for the book to be over with and finished.

Many have correctly noted that this is Mieville's most explicitly political novel. Since his politics are Euro-socialist in character, perhaps you might think I was put off by that-but no. I am myself that rara avis, an American social-democrat of long standing, and I have little but sympathy for tales of community-level collectives (a la the Paris Commune) or worker oppression (a la the transcontinental railroad)-and both themes and their thinly veiled historical antecedents are prominent in Iron Council. But largely because of Mieville's failure to draw fuller, more sympathetic characters (Cutter is a whiny jackass; Judah Low is a cipher) or to sustain a believable and interesting narrative (the Council itself is an irritating community prone to sudden, inexplicable shifts of opinion as to its raison d'etre-but never mind, as it doesn't finally appear until hundreds of pointless pages have passed following the interminable wanderings of Cutter & Co. and the similarly unlikeable Ori back in New Crobuzon), and with it all undermined by his annoying staccato voice and sometimes incoherent descriptions of events, whatever merits Mieville's radically politicized story may have had get thoroughly lost in the shuffle.

In his previous novels, nothing felt like a "set piece"; everything that happened usually played a crucial role in why subsequent events turned out as they did. In Iron Council, by contrast, one senses more a rote succession of staged novelty acts, as if Mieville were making use of every half-developed idea he'd ever had. (Take the attack of the "inchmen," for one instance.) In a similar vein, the major characters in his earlier Bas-Lag were sometimes morally ambiguous, but that just made them consistently interesting and complicated. As many have commented, the most noteworthy thing about two of the major characters in Iron Council is their homo- or bisexuality, and yet while this is a promising and perhaps vaguely daring premise in the usually hyper-heterosexual world of fantasy fiction, it seems a choice made more for shock effect than anything essential to them or the plot. Their sexuality is clearly intended to be-but is very poorly realized as-vital to these characters' "being-ness," and thus it contributes almost nothing to our understanding of them. In fact, Cutter's passionate possessiveness toward Low makes him seem, more than anything, one-dimensional and frequently grating-hence, Cutter's sexuality becomes more of a negative trait, which seems rather incongruous with Mieville's anti-intolerance politics.

SPOILER ALERT-Just a few plot objections concerning the end of the book (though there were plenty of others throughout): Why wouldn't the militia have destroyed or booby-trapped the tracks just outside of New Crobuzon? Why hadn't they sought out and found their cohorts and the Council in the weeks prior to the train's approach, just as Cutter had? Why can't any of the refugees from the city give the Council a reasonably straight answer as to whether or not the Collective had already been vanquished? (It had.) And most of all, how does the "time golem" manage to continue in existence even after Judah Low has been killed? Finally, and in a completely different vein, why does Mieville use the word "career" as a verb over and over again?

But enough already. I have never before had my expectations so shattered by an author. I am astounded that anyone would think that this book is on a par with-or even better than-Mieville's previous Bas-Lag novels (though the wider consensus seems to be one of disappointment, more or less). Unfortunately, though, Mieville received some of the best and widest mainsteam-media reviews of his career with Iron Council, and if he believes his clippings, I'm afraid we may in for more outings like this. But his earlier works provide a far better indication of his prodigious talents, and so I will fervently hope that he can still return to that form with his next novel.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 24, 2007 11:35:35 AM PDT
He probably uses the word career as a verb because, well, it has a valid usage as a verb ("To move or run at full speed; rush.")

Posted on May 14, 2009 5:31:03 AM PDT
Me says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on May 20, 2009 7:44:07 AM PDT
Seems to be most upset that the characters are...unlikeable. I myself dislike novels where the protagonists are happy fun people. I prefer to think that it is not the likability of people so much as it is the things that they do. Mieville's characters are REAL people -good, bad, indifferent- doing difficultu things.

Posted on May 24, 2009 5:56:30 AM PDT
ML says:
You said: "Just a few plot objections concerning the end of the book (though there were plenty of others throughout): Why wouldn't the militia have destroyed or booby-trapped the tracks just outside of New Crobuzon? Why hadn't they sought out and found their cohorts and the Council in the weeks prior to the train's approach, just as Cutter had? Why can't any of the refugees from the city give the Council a reasonably straight answer as to whether or not the Collective had already been vanquished? (It had.) And most of all, how does the "time golem" manage to continue in existence even after Judah Low has been killed? Finally, and in a completely different vein, why does Mieville use the word "career" as a verb over and over again?"

I don't see any of these as problematic. The militia clearly could have intercepted the Iron Council, but chose not to. Why not? Two easy answers are that (a) it's easier to fight on your own turf, where you're already dug in and know the lay of the land, and (b) destroying the Iron Council in the outskirts of New Crobuzon, where there would be many witnesses, would be much more appealing to the powers that be than eliminating it in the sparsely populated hinterlands. As for answers about the state of the Collective, they did become progressively clearer as the Council approached the city, but how thoroughly the rebels were defeated was something that could not easily be ascertained by the casual observer. As for the time golem persisting after Judah's death, I presume that the answer is tied directly to its nature as a *time* golem -- but do we really care?

Posted on May 18, 2010 8:49:03 AM PDT
M. Torres says:
I don't get how you can enjoy the other Bas-Lag novels and give this a ONE star review? Really, one star? Some of your points may be valid but come on....this is hardly one-star material.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 21, 2010 5:36:24 PM PDT
Swift 36 says:
You're right, one-star is probably too harsh in the Big Picture (that is, compared to all else). But if measured by Mieville's earlier high stds, yes, I still think this is a rotten book.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 21, 2010 5:41:32 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Jun 21, 2010 5:41:53 PM PDT]

Posted on Sep 18, 2010 3:11:59 PM PDT
After many months, I finally managed to finish this book last night. The only reason I persevered is that I greatly enjoyed Mieville's two previous Bas Lag novels, and I was looking forward to some redeeming writing, even up to the last 50 pages. I wish I hadn't bothered.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 19, 2012 4:52:08 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 19, 2012 4:52:28 PM PDT
spank_an_elf says:
Funny how you say this took you months to read. After about a month I am at the half-way point. I am sick of the writing. Characters are inconsistent. One character speaks like a hayseed, turns eloquent later only to dumb down again, even when speaking to the same people! I hate bailing on a book, but this book reads like a failed experiment. China should have skipped trying to write a Western.
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