The Short Version: A railroad sets out from New Crobuzon and goes rogue, setting off across the continent in pursuit of an ideal of freedom. Time passes and the train turns to myth – but with war tearing apart New Crobuzon from within and without, a small band of adventurers sets out to bring the train home. The Iron Council is needed…
The Review: I don’t know why I’m so ambivalent about this book. On the surface, it should deliver everything I could ever want: another story set in New Crobuzon, a story about a train, a story full of political machinations, and a story that greatly expands our understanding of China Miéville’s towering addition to the universe of fantastical worlds. So why did I feel it to often be a bit of a slog?
I’ve seen two reviews that captured quite eloquently the twinned faults with this book that kept me from loving it in the way I’ve loved nearly every other Miéville: lack of “place” and lack of “character”. A book can survive without one or the other, but not both: The Scar, despite having a less-than-amazing lead in Bellis Coldwine, delivered the confounding majesty of Armada and Perdido Street Station both introduces New Crobuzon and has the magnetic Issac Dan der Grimnebulin at the lead. And while Iron Council takes flight when it returns to New Crobuzon, it departs for places unknown far too frequently and without a compelling lead (which Bellis was, despite her flaws) to guide us through.
The idea behind the novel, that of a Western-esque adventure out in the unmapped territories with a stolen train that reuses a set of rails (they lay them down, then pick them up to use again – a silly concept but also a kind of magical one), feels ripe for a ripping yarn and, admittedly, there are moments where that sense of old-school adventure does come through. But largely, the trek to find the Iron Council as well as the tale of its beginnings, is dull. The thing we often forget about Westerns is that for all the moments of adventure there are probably five times as many moments of just… trudging along through open plains. And, unfortunately, there’s a fair amount of trudging here – by necessity, obviously, but that doesn’t make it any better. Even when Miéville elides these moments, jumping to the next point of contention, we’re still left with that expansive empty feeling like we can’t really latch onto the story. Even the train itself feels less-concretely-rendered than (for example) Armada, a similar creation of circumstance and material-to-hand. I could tell you which ships were in which part of the city whereas I couldn’t tell you what any particular train car was. I didn’t get the feeling of the lives that the Councillors lived, I didn’t have the sense of the motion of the train – I didn’t feel like any of it mattered to me.
Maybe more time spent in micro-focus would’ve helped – but Miéville splits his time and heads back to the city, where revolution is nigh. I find it deeply intriguing that Miéville skips over the entirety of the Construct War, which you’d think would make for an exciting tale (especially seeing how Perdido Street Station laid the groundwork for a fascinating riff on AI vs. humans) but is instead relegated to brief references here and there. Perhaps he’ll come back to it someday – or perhaps our imaginations will have to suffice. Regardless, New Crobuzon both looks the same and different, as any city might 30-some years down the line. We’re drawn into a world where the Runagate Rampant is one of the tamer dissident organs of the city and Ori, a young angry rebel, wants something more. The gang he falls in with, Toro’s gang, presents the reader with some interesting disparities in the world of agitation, namely the difference between stirring the pot and actually committing action. But just as the plot begins to really sink its hooks into the reader, we’re thrown back to Iron Council and momentum is lost.
And yet there are things I grin to think about, like the whispersmith or the idea of golems of increasing complexity (from physically formed to those made of shadows or even time). The war with Tesh alone could’ve sustained this book and their insidious incursions feel truly scary – or would, had the denouement felt utterly without weight. So too does the political struggle within the city, which comes as a surprise considering Miéville’s strong Marxist bent. I couldn’t figure out why the revolts and eventual creation of the Collective felt so underbaked, except that I kept glancing at my stack of Jacobin issues on my desk and thinking that I had no sense of what the proletariat actually wanted under these circumstances. The stated gains of Toro and co, to kill the mayor, were strongly stated but lacked any sort of follow-through – and it’s the follow-through, as we all know, where revolutions are won and lost.
Rating: 3 out of 5. In attempting to give us the whole world, Miéville loses what often makes his writing so special: the ability to rigorously work through an entire concept with the reader, moment by moment, page by page. His focus and intensity are what I love about his writing (not to mention his dazzling imagination) and they were lacking here, even as the imaginative engine continued to roar. Every time I found something to sink into as I’ve done with every other Miéville book, I found that the pond was far shallower than it has been in the past, and that the two stories (three if you count the nearly-200-pg history of Iron Council) are more like two books smushed together as opposed to one sprawling coherent one. My admiration for Miéville is undiminished, as is my love for Bas-Lag – but sometimes the magic doesn’t work.