Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Review: Iron Council by China Mieville

Iron Council is the third novel set in China Mieville's Bas-Lag universe. It's a curious world with both magic and technology, and lots of odd peoples in it. In the first book, Perdido Street Station, we got to see the city of New Crobuzon as it falls to chaos. In the second book, The Scar, we follow a young woman fleeing New Crobuzon only to end up in the pirate city of Armada. Here, on the third novel, we switch back and forth between New Crobuzon at the edge of civil war and the ever-running train of Iron Council.

Overal Impression
This was an interesting, though heavy book. It took me longer than normal to read since I took frequent breaks. Like Mieville's other works, it has an incredible setting with a convoluted plot and unique characters. This one in particular is very political, touching on themes that seem very relevant to today's climate, particularly when dealing with New Crobuzon's crackdown of dissidents, its treatment of Remade, and the whole mess with the war on their rival nation Tesh. Whenever I could dedicate a few hours, I would get sucked in to the world and enjoy it.

While this is a Bas-Lag novel, I don't think one needs to read the prior ones to get started. Events from prior novels (and past history) are referred to when necessary, but the book feels fairly independent. While the events in Perdido Street Station may have led to the present situation in Iron Council, it's more like there they were a part of the grander scheme of evolving city-states.

One thing that kinda threw me off in this particular novel was the back and forth switching between several characters. We spend part of the book with Cutter, in his search for Judah Low and the Iron Council, and the other significant part with Ori, a budding revolutionary in New Crobuzon. Add to that some 'flashback'-type scenes showing off the history of Iron Council and you can easily get lost in both time and space. Other than that, however, each part is engaging in and of itself. As in prior Mieville novels, there are plenty of story threads throughout the book, but all of them tie together in a series of pretty satisfying and epic conclusions.

While we follow several characters throughout the book,  one is very central to the story- Judah Low. Exactly why is part of the story, but the important thing is that he is intimately involved with the Iron Council. We mainly follow the story through the eyes of Cutter, an old lover of Judah, and Ori, a discontent revolutionary in New Crobuzon. Both of these characters are swept up in events far larger than them as the tides of war and revolution engulf them. There are plenty of secondary characters too, including the masked revolutionary Toro; the crazy old man Spiral Jacobs; a monk of the Moment of the Hidden and Lost, Qurabin; the whisperer Drogon; and many, many more.

Setting / World Building
The Bas-Lag universe is an interesting mix of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. While humans are plenty common, there are also other prominent species like the cactae (giant cactus people), the vodyanoi (frog people), the khepri (insect people, though they're not quite that), and so forth. There's also Remade, which form a big part of this novel. The Remade are former humans who have been redesigned with magic and technology, usually as a form of punishment. For example, a person may have tentacles grafted to their body, their head may be twisted backwards, or their torso may be replaced by a tank. Other than that they are still alive and 'functional' though tend to live tortured lives as they live with their alterations.

One of the coolest things of this particular novel is the nature of Iron Council. You get to see its history through one of the characters and, in Mieville fashion, this becomes a new city-structure that becomes central to the plot. While it's easier for me to imagine something like The Scar's Armada, with its fleet of ships tied together, it's not that far of a step forward to imagine a train that never stops. Iron Council predates Railsea, but it's possible Mieville was inspired by his own creations to revisit something similar in that later novel.

There's a lot of magic in this book, from the subvocalurgy of the whisperers, to the creations of golemancers and summonings of elementarii. If you've delved into fantasy before, you may have encountered creatures like earth golems or fire elementals. Mieville takes this to the next level with golemancers calling such esoteric things as air or light golems and elementarii opening gates to things "uncertain or disputed: elements made by history, born out of nothing and become real." I'll avoid spoiling the coolest elementals and golems that appear, but it's worth reading it to see how crazy things can get.

Final Thoughts
This was an epic story with all the crazy, amazing, horrific things you can expect from the Bas-Lag universe. While I'm not a fan of Westerns (and there were certain parts that seemed to draw heavily from that genre), I still enjoyed the story. The characters are interesting and grow on you and the world building is incredible. Mieville has a talent for taking the extraordinary and taking it to the next level.

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