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Iron Council

by China Miéville

(Macmillan, £12.99, 470 pages, trade paperback, also available in hardback priced £16.99, published 20 September 2004.)

Review by Stephen Palmer

Perdido Street Station -- brilliant, unique. The Scar -- hard to imagine how this exceptional novel could be better. Iron Council -- cover scanwell, let me resort to an analogy. If Perdido Street Station was Mieville's Revolver and The Scar was his Sergeant Pepper, this third novel is his Magical Mystery Tour. I mean, how do you follow The Scar?

The scene: New Crobuzon is teeming with political intrigue and revolution, there is war threatened with the distant Tesh, the militia are out on the streets ... in fact, it's chaos. Meanwhile, far away on a western frontier, a surreal train, the Iron Council--that perpetual train--is moving on tracks torn up from behind it and forever re-used. Out here we meet a number of characters, notably Judah Low the golemist, and Ann-Hari the political revolutionary (and, it could be argued, extremist). In New Crobuzon we meet Ori, and we also meet Spiral Jacobs -- "Are you a doubler? Are you proscribed?" -- who is wandering the city drawing helixes on walls.

The novel is split into two, those sections based in New Crobuzon, focussing on street protest and revolution, and those based around the Iron Council. It is these latter sections that let the novel down, for while this is a fine book, enjoyable, readable, original, bizarre and thoroughly Miévillish, the author has this time gone too far in trying to evoke something of our world -- the American frontier west of a century or so ago -- and so has stepped away from Bas-Lag. A mistake, I think. These sections are flabby and ever so slightly self-indulgent. They describe background, not plot. And they contrast markedly with the taut brilliance of the New Crobuzon sections, which are as gothic, great and gripping as anything in Perdido Street Station.

Perhaps it is also the characters that let this book down. In The Scar we met an extraordinary collection of people -- Bellis Coldwine, The Brucolac, The Lovers, Uther Doul. In this new novel, the characters, with the possible exception of Judah Low, are somewhat grey and ordinary. Other reviewers have noted that this book is Miéville's most political, and that may be true, but an examination of the politics does not bear much scrutiny. Many of the characters are revolutionaries and little else; that's so nineteenth century. Toro, who could have been so much, disappointingly turns out to be motivated by mere revenge, in a narrative side-step that irritates the reader rather than amazes. Perhaps Mieville himself was aware of this, since the sexuality of two of his characters seems gratuitous rather than genuine, as if added only because it was next on the menu of minorities.

Having said all that, any first-time author would be delighted to have produced a novel as original and readable as this. The latter sections in particular are gripping. The beasts and creatures are of a very high order, and the landscape is often fabulous. However, this is Miéville, and he will be judged on his record. Is this unfair? Possibly. No author can keep on producing Sergeant Pepper works. And taking the Beatles analogy to its conclusion, we should perhaps be hoping for a White Album in a year or two ...

Miéville has however created one of the great SF catchphrases: reading the book simultaneously, a friend of mine and I sent everybody in our workplace mad with our constant cries of, "Are you a doubler?" Try it -- it's great!

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