Del Rey, 2004, 564 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-345-46402-8
Sooner or later, the law of diminishing returns always applies to any fantasy series. The point where the new world, once so shiny and so new, starts to look faded and dull. The change is usually gradual, with plenty of warning signals to stop reading while the books are still reasonably good. China Miéville’s third Bas-Lag book, Iron Council, is one such warning signal; while it’s still an impressive novel, there are signs that the Bas-Lag universe may be running out of steam.
By now, no one needs to be told about the wonders of Perdido Street Station or The Scar: With those, Miéville created a brand-new fantasy playground and used it for superlative monster tales. With Iron Council, Miéville tries something new, doesn’t completely succeed, but manages to finish the book with his reputation intact.
Simply put, Iron Council is the book where revolution comes to Bas-Lag —or more specifically to the city of New Crobuzon, arguably the central protagonist of the trilogy-so-far. In this book, New Crobuzon’s atmosphere has become actively oppressive; so much so that the citizen are openly mulling open insurrection, spurred by the promise of a legendary group of revolutionaries named the Iron Council. The Council escaped, decades earlier, by hijacking a train and leaving in the wilderness. Now, they’re ready to come back, and bring the revolution along with them.
Miéville has never been shy about his political tendencies, but neither of the first two Bas-Lag books made much of it. In Iron Council, though, he’s left free to study the roots and the mechanism of social unrest, even make it the central theme of his book. It’s a risky departure from the material in his first two books, but it works well in sending the series in another direction. At the very least, Miéville should be commended for his willingness to stretch the boundaries of his series.
Sadly, it’s an unsuccessful experiment dogged by its execution. The biggest problem with Iron Council isn’t with the quality of the prose (once again superb, though perhaps a touch too verbose) but with the way his narrative unfolds. Perdido Street Station and The Scar each depended on strong protagonists with a clear voice. Iron Council, unfortunately, struggles without a sympathetic narrative anchor. Jubal is too removed from the action and too powerful to sustain much interest. Cutter is annoying. Low-level criminal Ori shows promise, but he remains offstage for most of the novel.
Lacking a way in the heart of the story, the reader struggles through the book. There is a lengthy flashback that doesn’t quite work. The storytelling is fractured between places and time, never achieving the deliciously compulsive readability of Miéville’s previous novels. There is also a sense that the ending, while completely deliberate, betrays a lack of nerve in going to the end of the path he has made for the story. It stops in mid-track, perhaps to be elucidated in another novel.
And that’s where the law of diminishing return kicks in. For all of Miéville’s sustained imagination (the last image of the book is one that will stay with me a long time, to say nothing of the Iron Council’s initial bid for freedom), Iron Council is starting to repeat itself and betray the limits of the Bas-Lag universe as shown to the readers so far. There is less to this novel than the previous ones, and over-critical readers may see in this book the beginning of the end.
It doesn’t have to be, of course: Maybe the next novel in the series will tighten up the writing, feature a fascinating central character and meld Miéville’s political themes with a rousing story. Certainly, this may even be a minority opinion: Iron Council itself has been warmly received elsewhere, even earning a Hugo nomination. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s something missing: a little bit of fun.