UK First Edition Hardcover
Publication Date: 09-17-2004
469 Pages; £17.99
Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
Publication Date: 07-27-2004
485 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 07-26-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel (c) 2004 © 2004
Note on the editions: Both US and
UK have identical covers and contents.
One of the stigmas of fantasy fiction is that it offers little of specific value or reference to this world, our world, the real world. "You're just living in a fantasy world!" my father used to tell me upon seeing another title by Edgar Rice Burroughs or J. R. R. Tolkien. And he was right. The fantasy worlds of Burroughs and even Tolkien have little specific reference to this world. One of the most fascinating outcomes of the release of Tolkien's trilogy as a movie was the rush by political types of both the left and the right wings to extol the virtues of the English scholar's work in support of their particular point of view. So flexible is the great fantasy that it can be easily stretched to fit anyone's agenda. From the political right, we heard a chorus of voices warning us that Tolkien's story was a call to arms against terrorism, and that Bin Laden and his lot were embodied in that disembodied eyeball perched on a mountain, waiting for chance to bring down the good men of Western Civilization. From the political Left, we heard the refrain that the all-seeing eye was the very incarnation of those who would seize upon the chance to make war upon an unseen enemy and so enslave us all by eroding our liberties until we were little more than a regiment of marching monsters. In reality, Tolkien was writing about a war long past, fought for reasons no longer applicable. But the human truths at the core of the narrative retained their universal appeal, and naked emperors are ever eager to seize at whatever patriotic clothing they may find.
There will be no confusing the political realities behind China Miéville's equally impressive work of fantasy fiction, 'Iron Council'. Miéville's work is as topical as any work of non-fiction, but by filtering our reality through his fertile imagination and refocusing the result onto the carefully detailed world of Bas Lag, Miéville has created a political tale with considerably more staying power. 'Iron Council' is a baroque, complex novel that digs out the universal human truths, points specific fingers in specific directions and is as powerfully entertaining as the locomotive that literally runs through the entire novel. It's as different from his first two novels of Bas Lag, 'Perdido Street Station' and 'The Scar' as they are from one another, neither of which needs to be read before reading this one. They're all quite effective as standalone novels. Chances are, however, that if you read one, you'll be buying the rest before you've finished the first.
Appropriately, 'Iron Council' runs on two tracks. One set of characters, Cutter, Elsie, Pomeroy and Drogon, have escaped from Miéville's complex metropolis of New Crobuzon in search of the fabled Iron Council. Neither they nor the reader are sure what it even is, or if it can be found. This story unwinds into a story of the past in a lovely, complex bit of narrative as it introduces more characters. As they all strike out across the frontier wastelands that surround New Crobuzon, the readers realize that what's unfolding here is nothing less than a fabulously imagined Western, with gunslingers, handlingers, railways and trail ways. Miéville infects his tale with the pure socialism of the Old West, of outcasts and demagogues, powerful figures of myth and legend brought to life by his words.
Another track stays smack-dab in the middle of the big city, Miéville's New Crobuzon. Ori Ciuraz works his way to the heart of a rebellion against an increasingly onerous aristocracy that is slowly draining the city of resources, money and young men and women to fight a war for unclear reasons against a foe that may never be defeated. If it all sound familiar and quite applicable to today's foes it is -- and yet, as cast in the imagined world of China Miéville, it's timeless as well. Ori is an earnest young rebel who digs deep and reaps the rewards of his pursuit. Rebellion is always possible -- but is it desirable?
'Iron Council' is a pleasure to read on so many levels, it's almost hard to keep track of how enjoyable it all is. As a simple fantasy adventure, it has no equal. Miéville's imagination runs riot but he seems truly connected to a real world out there. As a timeless political fable, it makes clear arguments and counter arguments with clarity and depth of vision. As a contemporary political satire, it slings its barbs with dire accuracy and wild, passionate outrage against our so-called war on terror and the pointless military adventures both the US and UK seem to have an everlasting love for. No matter what you feelings for the current situation, Miéville makes his points with entertaining, complex plotting. The construction of 'Iron Council' is an Escher-esque spiral, a staircase that leads back to itself in a perfect illusion of seamless connection, an ouroboros with a timeless conclusion.
Readers familiar with Miéville have come to expect superior, lapidary prose and there's plenty enough here to keep you reading the best bits aloud to your flat mates and family. Resist the temptation. They all deserve to enjoy it on their own terms. Miéville also delivers a cast of powerful characters that will live on in the readers' memories long after the book has gone down the line. Judah Lowe, the golemicist and Ann-Hari, the socialist demagogue who creates a society through sheer will cast their spells over the readers as easily as they do over those in their sway.
Miéville also excels at creating a world of his own. Readers who seek the powerful political points he makes may have to power-down their expectations of mundane reality in the face of Miéville's incendiary imagination. Those who seek the monsters and unreal vistas that he so often offers will be find themselves once again heartily rewarded. Miéville also turns the old Arthur C. Clarke axiom, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," on its side. 'Iron Council' re-imagines magic with such precision -- and science with such imagination -- that both have the gritty reality required to come alive for the reader. One major character in particular pursues his magic with a scientific fervor that yields a series of ever-escalating wonders culminating in a persuasive, powerful payoff.
Make no mistake about it. Miéville's 'Iron Council' is an important, powerful novel. But it's also good for pure slack-jawed entertainment. Few readers will escape the intimate immediacy of Miéville's prose and none will miss his pointed jabs at the entrenched powers both in the US and the UK. The Dickensian feel of New Crobuzon ensures that it is a place that readers can return to in their minds to visit again and again. The entwining narrative unfolds with clarity but rewards re-reading. If you're just living in a fantasy world -- and who doesn't want to -- then you'd be hard pressed to find a more rewarding habitat than 'Iron Council'.