On the topic of book reviews, my high school teacher of Swedish (a strict, old-fashioned man who was probably more feared than loved) used to remind us time and time again: “a plot summary is not a review” – “ett referat är inte en recension”. While I found it frustrating as a 15-year-old, now, 10 years later, I think it is a pity that the world’s book reviewers haven’t yet been taught that lesson. Far too many of them start their reviews by giving away far too much of the story.
This is very much the case with Iron Council. So if after reading my review you’re thinking of reading it, I’d recommend you to just get it and dive in without reading too many more reviews.
China Mieville has a distinctive approach to story-telling. He uncovers some parts while keeping others carefully hidden until their time arrives. Indeed, after the first fifty pages of Iron Council I was still completely perplexed about why I was being told about these persons whose background or roles were never explained, as they seemed to be desperately trying to reach or catch up with someone else, in some unknown place of wilderness, for unknown reasons. And then the story switched to a different place and different people, who had no discernible connection to the first set of people. In fact it wasn’t even clear whether the two parts were taking place at the same time, or decades apart.
While it may feel somewhat frustrating at times, this is all done so deliberately that it would feel a shame to side-step the author’s intent. Instead, go with the flow and let things happen in their time. It will all make sense in the end.
Iron Council takes place in the same gothic/Victorian world, and revolves around the same city, as Mieville’s other books. Yet the world is treated the same as the rest of the story, in a way: we are told that which is relevant at each point, and not a bit more. Where other books would find ways to slot in brief lectures – by letting someone explain things to a child, or a foreigner – we are on our own here. There are no maps of the world or the city, which otherwise staple fare in books about complex fantasy worlds (all probably simply following Tolkien). We are not provided with a summary of its history or the city-state’s government, but offered glimpses of it as it touches the characters’ lives. Even the laws and forces of nature remain unexplained, even though it becomes clear early on that they are not the same as in our world. To the end, the world remains a vast, alien, complex and mysterious place, and we have only wandered through a small part of it. So the initial confusion is replaced not by clarity, but by a lingering sense of mild puzzlement.
Even though we are never given a chance to understand this world, Mieville somehow manages to give the impression that he himself knows all about it. It is so richly detailed, so vividly and intricately imagined, that it becomes entirely believable.
This is reinforced by the kinds of characters we follow. They are neither people of power, nor ordinary nobodies. They tend to be from the fringes of society. As with the world, the characters are presented in glimpses. The more ordinary aspects of their lives – those that do not immediately matter for the story – are ignored. Surely inhabitants of this world must buy groceries, have houses, get an education, use their public transport system? It’s all ignored, increasing our sense of alienation.
And as if this wasn’t enough, Mieville’s language compounds the effect. The language is rhythmic yet wild, poetic and naturalistic, as grotesque as the world, occasionally simply overwhelming. So is the vocabulary. There are some made-up words, of course – it’s hard to get by without these when your world has concepts that aren’t present in ours. But even his vocabulary of English words is so large that it becomes difficult to judge which words he’s made up, and which ones I’ve just never seen before. And when I say “large vocabulary”, I mean “you won’t even find these words in an ordinary dictionary”. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of words that look like they probably might be English, and whose meaning can generally be figured out from their context, but I don’t know for sure. But when there’s so much puzzlement already going on, what difference will a few hundred strange words make?
Mieville’s only weakness is in writing endings. His stories build up towards a massive climax, leading us to wonder how he will manage to bring it all to a close. He does well in Perdido Street Station, which deals with smaller-scale actions and forces. As his ambition grows, and his stories deal with changes in entire societies, his ability to bring them to a conclusion doesn’t quite keep up: both in The Scar and in Iron Council the ending is side-stepped with a weakish trick. Something grand is going on, and it has to either succeed or fail grandly, but instead he sort of avoids this choice, and neither happens.
All in all, I would say Iron Council, and Mieville’s other books, are great if you want something completely unique and unclassifiable, uncomparably imaginative, and unforgettable. Oh, of course one can find other good reasons to read this book… Grand themes such as Marxism and fascism, transcontintental exploration and exploitation, are present too, as well as various philosophical questions. But one can find these everywhere, while no one builds a world quite like Mieville does.
If you’d like to read more about the themes and threads of the book, I can recommend J. N. Mohlman’s review at Amazon. Skip the editorial reviews, though, as they’ve got too many spoilers in them. For a completely opposite perspective, from one who found the book frustrating and pretentious, try this review – well-argued, and only very mild spoilers.