Monday, 6 January 2014

Curled Up Next to the Fire: Iron Council

In the lengthy silence that I have been hiding in whilst writing my novel, I have done a spot of reading. Not much, given that I've been furtively writing most of the time, as well as taking a hiatus from reading because I was less than one hundred pages from the end of the book mentioned in the title. You see, it has been mentioned in two previous entries, one Sitting Under the Shade of the Tree and a fellow Curled Up Next to the Fire, incidentally also blogged about at the start of a year. For today's blog speaks of the wonders of China Miéville's work. And I couldn't bring myself to finish reading Iron Council before finishing my novel, because I knew I would absolutely have to blog about it. So I forced myself to be patient and wait until the writing was finished before the reading was.

Now, before I dive in and babble about the book itself, a small warning of potential spoilers. While I aim to avoid them as best I can, Iron Council is the third book in the Bas-Lag Trilogy. There is that ever-present risk that some of the events of the previous two books might get mentioned.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, on with the babbling.

Iron Council is set some twenty or so years after the events of Perdido Street Station and The Scar, which are set near back-to-back. From what I've been able to gather from the novels and some Google referencing, Iron Council takes place in the year 1804 (or around then) in the Bas-Lag chronology, the previous having taken place in 1779 and 1780 respectively.

1804 then. Big changes have happened in New Crobuzon, the toxic city at the heart of the Bas-Lag trilogy. Well. The city administration, the Parliament and its tyrannical Mayor, are still as corrupt and tyrannical as ever. But the feared New Crobuzon Militia is no longer a secret police hiding in the shadows, they have uniforms and are patrolling the streets, though they still wear masks to hide their identities. And all the while, New Crobuzon is waging a costly war against the mysterious city-state of Tesh. Against this backdrop, the rag-tag liberal dissidents of New Crobuzon gather, independently of each other, to bring about great change in the city of rotten dreams.

Iron Council follows three dissidents - Cutter, Ori and Judah Low. Cutter and a band of fellow dissidents from the Caucus, a loose affilitation of the dissident groups in New Crobuzon, are on the trail of Judah Low, who has disappeared halfway across Bas-Lag's continent of Rohagi in order to find the fabled Iron Council of the title. He and his band of fellow seditionists are only a few steps behind the New Crobuzon Militia, who seek to destroy the Iron Council, a symbol of hope and rebellion that could unravel the tyrannical fabric of Parliament's rule.

Meanwhile, back in New Crobuzon, Ori grows tired of the Caucus's ineffectual rebellion, growing to deeply admire and fall into the company of Toro, a militant seditionist who seeks to take direct action against Parliament and the Mayor.

Finally, Judah Low. While some of what we see through Judah's eyes is a telling of events transpiring in the now, the majority of his perspective chapters deal with the past, with the birth of the Iron Council, its roots in New Crobuzon's indiscriminate attempt to expand its dominions through the creation of a great railroad. Interesting side note, Judah Low is a golemist, a particular tradecraft for fashioning golems from various mediums. In the historical context of our Universe, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, famous for creating the Golem of Prague, a creature made from clay.

Anyway, back to the point...

I've waxed lyrical on the subject of the Bas-Lag Trilogy twice now and as the above paragraphs might show, I'm a bit naff at plot summaries. When I gush about China Miéville's works, I'm gushing about setting, about the atmosphere of things. The trick with Iron Council is that the setting is pretty familiar - we're back to New Crobuzon, the city that Perdido Street Station did a very good job of introducing us too. The lure of Iron Council is the state of New Crobuzon some twenty years on from when we last saw her. No less decayed and broken, the city is fast approaching a tipping point - the war with Tesh is going less-than-brilliantly, seditious elements in the city become even more organised in spite of the public presence of the Militia and despite having caught and executed famous Remade revolutionary Jack Half-a-Prayer years before, the violent spirit lives on in the previously mentioned Toro. Underneath the surface of it all, the city can feel that the whole stinking mess is about to violently explode.

Iron Council definitely feels different to the rest of the trilogy. And it's the finality that I think does it. You can feel that everything is coming to a head, that the final showdown is imminent. All roads lead to revolution and all that jazz. The usual sense of setting, the incredible character that arises from the places the characters inhabit isn't really here, which is a shame, but there are some pretty cool locations explored. One in particular, which I'm going to stick a giant SPOILER WARNING before just in case...

Much later, around the middle of Iron Council, we learn that the titular entity has retreated into the fringes of the Cacotopic Stain, a region first mentioned in Perdido Street Station. The Stain is a massive blight, a barren area where the laws of reality unravel, ravel themselves up again in new arrangements and play general havoc on anything they come into contact with by virtue of a highly unstable magical energy source called Torque. One of the dangers approaching the Stain is something I find particularly fascinating - a substance called smokestone. From what I can gather, it rises as smoke and then, when it comes into contact with living or inanimate matter, it hardens and creates solid stone. It's frakkin' dangerous stuff and litters the area around the Stain.

For all that I'm bigging it up though, we don't stay in the Stain long. Iron Council isn't so much about its settings as Perdido Street Station and The Scar were. This one is all about the oncoming storm that is about to zap New Crobuzon's Parliament in the butt.

As part of a trilogy, Iron Council comes to be judged next to the merits of its peers. Standing next to Perdido Street Station and The Scar, Iron Council is the weakest instalment in the trilogy, but no less a satisfying conclusion and a worthy entry in the Bas-Lag mythology. As with all of China Miéville's work, including the shudder inducing Kraken, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend reading it. Let's be honest, if you've read the first two in the Bas-Lag Trilogy, you should read the end, if nothing else to complete it. For all that I seem to be underwhelmed by it, it doesn't detract from my opinion that China Miéville is a genius, a brilliant writer whose work I continue to devour with near-religious devotion. Around the middle of the year, when I've demolished my reading pile a little more (hopefully), it'll be on to the next offering of his I have in my reading pile - Railsea. Oh, it turns out he has a bit of an obsession with definitely comes across here in Iron Council, but doesn't take anything away from the narrative, so all in all...just an interesting side note I guess.

Moving on...

As my babbling is reaching the level where I feel all sanity and confounded Vulcan logic has left the building, it's time to wrap things up. In summation, Iron Council is a good book, a worthy read, but alas not up there with the predecessors in the series.

Gods I feel all evil and dirty saying that...I suspect I need help.

Anyway, until next time dearest readers, where I plan to recap the exciting adventures of 2013 in a Year in Review-style blog, read, enjoy, curl up next to a nice roaring fire with a good book.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. Great to hear about the Bas-Lag books. I haven't got round to those yet, and will have to give it a try. I read Railsea last year. Loved it. I thought Un Lun Dun was particularly good, though I read it ages ago. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on those too.