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Iron Council Hardcover – July 27, 2004
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China Miéville's novel Iron Council is the tumultuous story of the "Perpetual Train." Born from monopolists' greed and dispatched to tame the western lands beyond New Crobuzon, the train is itself the beginnings of an Iron Council formed in the fire of frontier revolt against the railroad's masters. From the wilderness, the legend of Iron Council becomes the spark uniting the oppressed and brings barricades to the streets of faraway New Crobuzon. The sprawling tale is told through the past-and-present eyes of three characters. The first is Cutter, a heartsick subversive who follows his lover, the messianic Judah Low, on a quest to return to the Iron Council hidden in the western wilds. The second is Judah himself, an erstwhile railroad scout who has become the iconic golem-wielding hero of Iron Council's uprising at the end of the tracks. And the third is Ori, a young revolutionary on the streets of New Crobuzon, whose anger leads him into a militant wing of the underground, plotting anarchy and mayhem.
Miéville (The Scar, Perdido Street Station) weaves his epic out of familiar and heavily political themes--imperialism, fascism, conquest, and Marxism--all seen through a darkly cast funhouse mirror wherein even language is distorted and made beautifully grotesque. Improbably evoking Jack London and Victor Hugo, Iron Council is a twisted frontier fable cleverly combined with a powerful parable of Marxist revolution that continues Miéville's macabre remaking of the fantasy genre. --Jeremy Pugh
From Publishers Weekly
In this stunning new novel set mainly in the decadent and magical city of New Crobuzon, British author Miéville (The Scar) charts the course of a proletarian revolution like no other. The capitalists of New Crobuzon are pushing hard. More and more people are being arrested on petty charges and "Remade" into monstrous slaves, some half animal, others half machine. Uniformed militia are patrolling the streets and watching the city from their dirigibles. They turn a blind eye when racists stage pogroms in neighborhoods inhabited by non-humans. An overseas war is going badly, and horrific, seemingly meaningless terrorist acts occur with increasing frequency. Radical groups are springing up across the city. The spark that will ignite the revolution, however, is the Perpetual Train. Workers building the first transcontinental railroad, badly mistreated by their overseers, have literally stolen a train, laying track into the wild back-country west of the great city, tearing up track behind them, fighting off the militia sent to arrest them, even daring to enter the catotopic zone, that transdimensional continental scar where anything is possible. Full of warped and memorable characters, this violent and intensely political novel smoothly combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror, even the western. Miéville represents much of what is new and good in contemporary dark fantasy, and his work is must reading for devotees of that genre. FYI: Miéville has won Arthur C. Clarke, British Science Fiction and British Fantasy awards.
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Top customer reviews
The eponymous Iron Council is a small society of mutinous railroad workers. Years ago, they hijacked a train bound to connect New Crobuzon and other major cities and rode it into the wilderness, laying track as they went and picking it up behind them. The Iron Councillors are anarchists, living collectively, living in rapt defiance of where they come from, and back in New Crobuzon they are a symbol of hope that sometimes the poor and downtrodden win.
IRON COUNCIL is a split narrative that follows Judah Low*, a golemist who helps create the Iron Council in the first place; Cutter, a wounded cynic whose desperate love for Judah Low drives him into the center of things; and Ori, a young radical caught up in things he doesn’t understand back in New Crobuzon.** This is a big book, full of plot. There is a war, and an uprising, and vigilante justice, and a secret spy, and a strange monk who goes missing in pieces. All of the plot gravitates around the turmoil in New Crobuzon and the role the Iron Council plays in that—both as a catalytic symbol and as a group of real people who must decide to return to the city or keep running from it.
IRON COUNCIL is a deeply political book. It seems very clear to me that Mieville’s own politics seeped through to the pages here, that there is perhaps more of him in this book than in other ones. Having been in radical politics, I recognized a lot of the underground and fringe elements: arguments about the pitch and tenor of the paper, debates on the efficacy of guerrilla actions versus collective decisions that spun around and around. And in many ways, this is Mieville’s most utopian novel, too. He takes care to paint the Iron Councillors as real people grappling with real struggles, and they are not perfect. But he writes them with such love and admiration that it’s impossible not to get swept up in the romance and potential of their lives and actions.
The book ends on a strange philosophical question: when we reify history, when we relegate it to the realm of stories and divorce it from our day-to-day reality, what purpose does it serve? Is the idea of a thing enough? Here is a quote from the last page:
"Years might pass and we will tell the story of the Iron Council and how it was made, how it made itself and went, and how it came back, and is coming, is still coming."
But if the Iron Council never arrives, if it’s always a potential and never a reality, then is what it brings a false hope? What is the role of history? How should it guide us? Is it better to freeze things before they have a chance to fail with the idea that they could have succeeded rather than let it play out and deal with the trauma of a defeat? The book doesn’t answer these questions, only dredges them up. Judah, Cutter and Ori all have very different perspectives on these ideas, on the role of ideas in praxis to begin with. I have kept chewing over all these questions for weeks after I finished the book. To call IRON COUNCIL thought-provoking is an understatement.
*I see what you did there with that name, China Mieville.
**It is a very male-centric book. There is a secondary character, Ann-Hari, who I adored. She had all the agency I wanted Bellis Coldwine in THE SCAR to have. Ann-Hari starts as a whore, and emerges as a leader, first among the whores (with whom she organizes strikes) and then as a prominent and influential figure in the Iron Council itself. Though we meet her and know her first as a love interest of Judah’s, she quickly becomes much more than that and exists as herself outside of that relationship. The end to her story, more than anyone else’s, was deeply affecting and horrifically tragic. It’s worth reading this book for her alone, but I couldn’t help but wish she had been moved to the forefront.
If you've never read Mieville (or have, but not any of the Bas-Lag novels), I think you might do well to start with PERDIDO first. Though the novels can be read on their own, that novel might provide some necessary background to the dissension and unrest in this one.
I wholly admire this work, but I must be honest: I did not like it quite as much as the other Bas-Lag novels. This has much to commend it, but it drags at times, particularly at the beginning and, while one expects a Mieville novel to bounce back and forth between narratives, the narratives were not of equal strength--some are good enough to be their own novels, while some (like the first chapter) were confusing and, well, kind of dull. Additionally, several of the characters were difficult to "know." Judah, a self taught golem wizard, and Ori, a revolutionary who bordered on terrorism, were two main characters who remained out of touch for me. For key, important characters, I didn't understand them as I felt I should have.
But...WOW. What a story. Mieville has more creativity and passion and graphic clarity than SO many other writers it's almost criminal. His stories are so rich, his vivid details so clearly displayed, his action scenes so graphically intense that he draws the breath out of me. While this story is indeed a story of fantasy, wherein some men and women have powers far beyond others, and there are certainly acts and deeds that go well beyond the capabilities of the workaday world, yet Mieville's strength is in creating a world in which such moments are drawn from the same earth that you and I belong to. There is such power in his descriptions that his it all makes an organic sense, a plausibility.
There is SO much that goes on in this tale; the main, titled portion involves a trainful of refugees who choose to escape to a region of the world so feared that NO ONE in his right mind would go there. How they get to the pivotal point that they must escape, and how they manage that escape...well, it's just a great demonstration of an imaginative genius. And the portrayal of the warring state of the city of New Crobuzon--a dismal, wretched metropolis that is not unlike throwing New York City and Calcutta into a blender and setting it on Puree.
The Iron Council itself--the name given the trainful of escapees--is Mieville's clearest expression of his own political belief. Here, socialism is given its fullest expression, and it WORKS: though it is not without its blemishes, the men and women (most of whom were prostitutes) and Remades (criminals of the State whose physiques were grotesquely re-engineered as punishment) all work together for the common good. There is no status here other than chaverim: comrades. The "Iron Council" becomes a myth to all outsiders, but in their own real sense they last for decades as a truly functioning socialist community.
Here, too, Mieville tackles homosexuality...I cannot remember his approaching the subject before in the other Bas-Lag book. It is not handled sensationally, just as an element of plot, to explain and enhance a fuller spectrum of relationships.
ONE ADDITIONAL NOTE, and I cannot stress this enough: if you can, acquire and read whatever Mieville book you possess on a Kindle. One of the most amazing things about this author is his vocabulary, and scarcely a paragraph will transpire without his slipping these darlings in. Whether it's "piceous" or "inspissate" or "byssus" or "dweomer" or any one of a million others you'll be VERY glad all you have to do is tap the word to find out its meaning. I bought my own hardback novel in this particular case and I rued that very fact with every word I stumbled across.
But it's not just show. Mieville's preternatural ability to use unusual, arcane language to express the exact thing he's looking for goes beyond mere descriptive wordplay. No; they go beyond mere narrative and become synthesizers of mood themselves, imparting the scene and the entire novel with a bizarre, almost unfathomable depth of atmosphere. This is true other-ness...this is the novel - be it the New Weird, or fantasy -- as pure escape. It is a word painting using no broad brush, but an exactitude of expression unlike any other.
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