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Iron Council
China Miéville
Macmillan hardcover £17.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Since the publication of Perdido Street Station, China Miéville has enjoyed a status afforded few genre authors. His books are published through a mainstream publishing company (despite Macmillan having a genre imprint in the UK); he had a two-page write-up in the London Evening Standard and is frequently called the 'saviour of fantasy'. If Iron Council is any indication of Miéville's talent, I think he might well be an author who is deserving of the hype lavished upon him.

Miéville's two previous journeys through the world of 'Bas Laag' were very straightforward stories, essentially quests, where the main characters found themselves forced to search for something. This book's plot is far more complex and I feel it shows a growing confidence on Miéville's part not only as a creator and an ideas man but also as a writer. I'll consider these two sides of China Miéville separately.

The fantasy genre has a large and well-used vocabulary that few authors deviate from. To critics of the genre these are hackneyed clichés; to the defenders these are Campbellian archetypes. Either way, the fact remains that when you pick up a fantasy novel you're unlikely to be surprised or shocked by the world or anything in it.

Miéville's talent lies not only in deconstructing this shared language but also in simply being more creative than the other writers on the shelf. He deconstructs traditional tropes by using traditional fantasy methodologies but rather than giving us something familiar, Miéville gives us something profoundly alien and 'Other'. Consider, for example, Miéville's races. Like many authors he has gone with the man-plus-other thing template giving us cactus men, frog-like Vodianoi, inscrutable desert-dwelling eagle-men and the insectoid Kephri. Miéville's other method is the compound word; many fantasy writers will create ideas by taking two words and jamming them together to create something like demonbane, owlknight, darkslayer. Miéville gives us whispersmiths and handlingers yet manages to make them sound truly alien and different, using typical fantasy tricks to create something weird and alien rather than familiar and comforting. Indeed, Miéville differs from other fantasy writers is in his relationship with the Other; whereas many fantasy writers ignore the Other and go for the familiar, Miéville repeatedly rams home the idea that his world most definitely is not our world. Bizarre names and phrases and compound words are invoked in conversation and never explained or clarified or even mentioned again. Compare this with the Tolkien approach of accompanying any new idea with exposition and even a poem.

Technology and magic are also radically different to what is found in other books, magic is spoken of less as some sacred and mysterious force but as an every day element of people's lives much like the industrial technology that Miéville also includes in his world (further adding to the sense of Otherness). Magical ideas are discussed in the way we might discuss scientific ideas, these are not mysterious forces but simple facts about the world that can be exploited by anyone with the right kind of knowledge. Bas Laag might seem alien to us but never to Miéville's characters. It is Miéville's creativity and his approach to genre conventions that has lead many to hail him as the saviour of fantasy. I think that he is something quite different; China Miéville is the most dangerous man in fantasy. By showing real creativity and placing the onus upon the Other rather than the familiar Miéville is showing us quite how flawed and abusive our relationship with fantasy really is. If Miéville's style becomes as influential as it doubtless deserves to be then the safe familiarity of much of fantasy writing is seriously under threat. Simply put, China Miéville's books have a higher idea-to-page ratio than any other fantasy author I have ever encountered. His talent as an ideas man is completely unimpeachable, but to be a truly great author he must marry these ideas to a compelling story and this is the other side to China Miéville: the author.

As a writer, Miéville is clearly growing more and more confidant. He has moved from simply plotted stories with one main protagonist to sprawling narratives with different perspectives, intersecting time lines and complex stories. While Iron Council is a success overall, I think that this is the area where the book falls down slightly. The book follows not only the story of Ori, who lives in New Crobuzon and moves from being a lefty to a revolutionary, but also that of Judah Low, a founding member of the Iron Council. The Iron Council is a commune living on board a train seized during the revolt by slaves and employees of a company trying to build a rail line out of New Crobuzon. These two narratives overlap, and end with an armed uprising that sees the streets of New Crobuzon run with blood as the hooded Militia fight the revolutionaries and the 'remade' (Miéville's version of fantasy genetic engineering where magic is used to bond humans to other things from animal parts to machinery, a punishment dished out by New Crobuzon's punishment factories). Simply put, the central plot is unstable partly because of Miéville's trademark moral ambiguity. The revolutionaries of Iron Council revolt because of the camp prostitutes going on strike and, apart from Dickensian imagery, the exact motivations for revolt in the city are largely unclear. Miéville paints revolution as a haphazard and untidy thing full of violence and cruelty on both sides. As such, it's quite difficult to care about the outcome of the revolution and one might be tempted to see Iron Council less as a left-wing polemic but more as an indictment of the revolutionary left. And so the second half of the book works less well than the first half, which gives us the history of the Iron Council, Ori's recruitment by a revolutionary gang, and the travels of Low and his disciples to the Iron Council. For a book about the political process, Iron Council is remarkably free of politics especially when you compare Miéville's work to the work of other authors with visible politics. So I am not willing to rule out the idea that Miéville is again, subverting expectations by writing a book about romantic revolutionaries that also seems to subtly criticise their counterparts in this world.

Iron Council is a fantasy novel but one that has more characteristics of intelligent sci-fi than your typical fantasy novel. This is a book about science and society and politics and the alien. Iron Council owes less to Tolkien than it does to Charles Dickens, Zane Grey and the greats of science fiction. Miéville is astonishingly and dizzyingly creative and his writing not only shows a rigorous and analytical mind but also the potential to be a truly great writer. While the plot may have its problems Miéville's prose style is fluid and well paced, his descriptions evocative and spiced with the alien nature of his creation. I await his next novel impatiently.
Iron Council

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