Review: Iron Council by China Miéville

19 08 2008

China Miéville is a brilliant writer. This was not a difficult conclusion after reading Perdido Street Station.

Miéville visualizes and commits to paper ideas that could never occur to mere mortals. His world of Bas Lag is so rich and full of amazing scenery — an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ place, yet strangely compelling. Everything bizarre disjointed and imperfect, yet meshes to create a layered and interesting world in which nothing is ever simple or black-and-white. In fact, there are few moral judgments made at all. Everything is shades of grey. It’s magic steampunk to the max. For the best description possible, read the Science, technology and magic section on wikipedia:

“New Crobuzon’s technological capabilities are decidedly steampunk: difference engines, advanced clockwork “constructs”, helium-balloon airships, firearms, primitive photography and coal-powered trains and ships all abound in the three Bas-Lag novels.

Where science fails… magic steps in. New Crobuzon harbors a large population of magic-users — broadly referred to as “thaumaturges” — who are capable of earning a substantial living from their craft.”

I’m one of those people who runs around imagining a fantasy world unfolding over mundane scenery. Anything to add richness or feed me with ideas is welcome, even sought out. I can not get enough of Miéville. Perdido Street Station was amazing, and then I read The Scar which was not quite as good, but still filled with amazing imagery. Iron Council, the latest book set in this world of Bas Lag, was a veritable travel journal across the continent and back. The ideas and images were amazing and terrifying and new.

Despite this glowing recommendation of Miéville’s writing, I don’t actually recommend Iron Council. If you’re a casual reader of fantasy the beautiful and alien images in his writing won’t be enough to string you along for very long. When I said it read like a travel journal, I mean it. If I actually told you the plot of the book it would spoil the first two hundred pages of people running around to find it. It picks up around the last fifth, as actual life-threatening motivation is introduced to the characters.

The book is also plagued by one of Miéville’s major flaws — the inclusion of what are essentially gamesmaster controlled NPCs. These overpowered deus ex machinas characters drive the plot forward when the protagonist can’t because he’d be flattened by some terrifying slug monster from beyond reality or the army of terrifying fish-men. It’s a problem in The Scar and a worse problem in Iron Council. When these characters step in, it seems almost like the author is rolling dice to figure out what happens next, because their actions are sometimes so random and unexplained or overpowered compared to the more mundane elements of the world. It rarely makes much sense.

If you haven’t read any Miéville, I recommend starting with Perdido Street Station, though folks who read The Scar first seem to recommend that. If you desperately need more, I suppose you could read Iron Council but don’t say I didn’t warn you. There are times where you’ll have to force yourself forward through the beautiful-described plodding non-plot. At this point, I don’t expect any brilliant stories from Miéville, but if he wrote a Bas Lag codex or encyclopedia, or other supplement to a role playing game, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

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