Iron Council

Its headlamps were eyes now, predictably, bristling with thick wire lashes, its cowcatcher a jawful of protruding teeth. The hug tusks of wilderness animals were strapped and bolted to them. The front nub of its chimney wore a huge welded nose, the smokestack ajut from it in nonsense anatomy. Sharpened girders gave it horns. And behind that enormous unwieldy face the engine was crowded with trophies and totems. The skulls and chitin headcases of a menagerie glared dead ferocity from its flanks: toothy and agape, flat, eyeless, horned, lamprey-mouthed with cilia-teeth, bone-ridged, shockingly human, intricate. Where they had them the trophies’ skins were tanned, drabbed by preservation, bones and teeth mazed with cracks and discoloured by smoke. The befaced engine wore dead like a raucous hunter god.

Imagine science and technology came to Middle-Earth. Now imagine that in place of hobbits, orcs, elves, and ents, you have steam-cyborgs, amphibious vodyanoi, insect-headed khepri, vegetable cactacae, ab-dead vampires, and a hundred other races. In place of epic heroism, imagine people so morally murky that Sauron would walk away from the worst of them in disgust. Mix SF, fantasy, steampunk, and maritime epic, people the result with psychologically complex (and complexed) characters, and have a gifted writer tell the tale. The world is Bas-Lag, created by China Mieville. He introduced it in Perdido Street Station and revisited it in The Scar, both extraordinary books by an extraordinary literary talent.

In 2004 he published his third and most political Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council.

General Information

Title: Iron Council.

Author: China Mieville

Original Publication Date: July 2004

ISBN: 0-345-46402-8

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Cover Price (hardcover) $24.95 U.S. $39.95 Canadian. Special deals and some used may be had from Amazon.


Some time after the events of the first two novels, industrialists from the sprawling, corrupt city of New Crobuzon set out to build a transcontinental railway. A rebellion by workers and slaves creates the Iron Council and the Perpetual Train, a city built on and around the locomotives.

Years later, a war fought on dubious grounds fosters rebellion within New Crobuzon itself. Beset by war, racism, rebellion, and a silent hex, the city faces its greatest crisis. Meanwhile, representatives of the socialist New Crobuzon Collective set out to find the legendary Iron Council.

High Points

1. Mieville’s descriptions of things and events. He handles history and geography as though writing about a real place, albeit one where impossibilities abound. He has thought through the implications of the various fantastic elements like few other authors. Ever wonder about how war might actually be fought in a world with magic? What an underground political meeting would look like in a city shared by various sentient species? The direction the Industrial Revolution might take in such a place? Mieville has given these things a lot of consideration.

The Perpetual Train and its people may haunt your dreams.

2. The character Judah Lowe learns and develops the art of golem-making, and applies it ways that go far beyond the familiar legend. He makes tiny golems of sticks to pull minor heists, but he also shapes forces of nature into robotic servants– with troubling results.

Low Points:

1. The opening pages prove more confusing than necessary, and they read like the well- written description of last weekend’s role-playing game. Despite Mieville’s excellent, oddball style and wild creations, this section became quite tedious: a dangerous thing in a novel’s opening.

2. Perdido Street Station and The Scar reinforce each other, but they are separate novels, and one can enjoy one without knowing the other. Iron Council frequently references events from the first novel, although the plot is entirely separate; this is not, in any strict sense, a sequel. Mieville, an author who excels in description, fails to provide any of certain key species which he handled in Perdido Street Station. These aspects may alienate some readers.

The Scores

Originality: 5/6 Mieville fleshes out a world we’ve visited in two previous novels, and therefore this novel seems less innovative than its predecessors. However, it brims nevertheless with wonders: a city built on a gigantic tortoise, fRemade humans, golem-traps, and centipedes the size of pythons.

The Tardy, while given a well-considered origin, seemed a little too much like Tolkien’s Ents, in both their nature and their (brief) role in the book.

Story: 5/6

Characterization: 5/6 .

Imagery: 6/6

Emotional Response: 5/6

Editing: 4/6. Mieville remains one of fantasy’s best-living prose stylists. However, certain sections of this novel– the opening in particular– should have been shortened.

Overall Score: 5/6. Iron Council, in my opinion, does not live up to the lofty standards set up the first two novels. However, that makes it better than most fantasy being sold. I would, however, recommend that you first read Perdido Street Station and/or The Scar. If you enjoy these, read the Council.

In total, Iron Council receives 35/42

Final Comments

Iron Council, more so than the first two novels, has been influenced by Mieville’s socialist politics. Now, one needn’t share the author’s views to enjoy the books, any more than one needs to be a royalist to take pleasure in Tolkien. However, the need to make a political point can cause writers to misstep, particularly in the eyes of those who have different ideological inclinations. One of the few weak points in The Scar occurs near the ending, when a politically-charged event happens far too easily, seemingly because it fulfils Mieville’s biases. In general, however, his politics inform his writing, and do not overwhelm it. We merely see how politics play out in his world, along with magic, science, and individual and group effort.

The novel’s open ending features a remarkable image, obviously intended to have symbolic resonance. Like the political elements, it works well in the context of the novel. However, the temptation may be present to read it allegorically. Doing so will stir some readers– and diminish the impact for others.

One reply

  1. Dystopian Societies

    I love Miéville’s writing abilities. He has an incredible imagination and he makes the characters and the world seem so real. But boy-oh-boy do I hate his visions of dystopia. So many of his characters are just plain emotionally dysfunctional. And Iron Council is no exception. At first, this book seemed to be different—there were actually functional people who were emotionally and intellectually mature. But then comes the ending where a few emotionally-crippled characters change the entire tone of the book.

    Thus, my love/hate relationship with Miéville.

    My low point and pet peeve: those who believed that killing the Mayor would destabilize the city. The Mayor is just the figurehead of a political/social machine and can easily be replaced without interrupting the functionality of said machine. Are these revolutionaries really that stupid?

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