(Note: If you haven't read Iron Council, intend to, and don't like to know plot elements and details before you read, you should not stray much beyond the first two paragraphs in this post.)
I began to read Iron Council with a mix of emotions and biases: I had enjoyed China Mieville's earlier novel Perdido Street Station and found some of its imagery breathtaking; I had liked parts of his next novel, The Scar, very much, but overall found the book tedious; I was tired of the cult-like hero-worshipping displayed by some of Mieville's fans; I looked forward to seeing how Mieville's imagined world of Bas-Lag would be developed; and I hoped very much that the book would demonstrate a maturation of Mieville's craft and not a settling in to his fame and guaranteed readership.
Iron Council is, indeed, a maturation, a book of depth and richness, particularly when viewed as the third part of a trilogy. (Actually, as Mieville has said, the order the books are read in probably doesn't matter. That they echo and add texture to each other, though, is certain.) Structurally, it is more assured, and certain structural choices seemed to me to play a larger part in the book's overall meaning than has been true in Mieville's work in the past. The language remains baroque, driven by rhythm as much as meaning, some passages being almost Faulknerian -- there are sentences and paragraphs rivaled by few contemporary writers for their beauty, but Mieville is also deliberately paying homage to various pulp traditions, and so the lyricism is generally usurped by melodrama, a technique that is emotionally manipulative, but a vital part of much popular culture. Mieville is an entertainer, a storyteller who wants to keep people turning pages and staying up late into the night to finish yet one more chapter.
It was a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that Mieville was willing to redirect his story 148 pages in with a flashback that is nearly as long as the entire book up to that point, a kind of narrative speedbump that will annoy many readers, I'm sure. The section is labelled an "anamnesis", a term that goes back to Plato and means a reminiscence or recollection, though it also has some meanings in religion and theosophy, and is even the title of a book by conservative philosopher Eric Voegelin. The various meanings anamnesis has accrued over the centuries often suggest memories that lead to later inspiration, a kind of ethical pre-learning, the basic knowledge or experience known to the subconscious (either personal or collective) that motivates someone to commit ethical actions.
The word anamnesis, then, gives us almost everything we need to know about the significance of this section to the book as a whole, to the ending, and to the Iron Council itself. The Council is a motley crew of errant revolutionaries who, after a railroad strike, build a society on a stolen train. In the decades since the Council fled, its actual deeds and existence have been far less important to the city of New Crobuzon than its legend. The legend inspires various people to fight against injustice and to hope for revolution. The anamnesis is that of both Judah Low, the protagonist of this section of the book, and of all New Crobuzon itself, which is one reason the governing powers in the city will stop at nothing to destroy the Iron Council -- they understand its symbolism. Judah was present as the creation of the Council, was a valued member of it, and then became its self-proclaimed bard after leaving it to return to New Crobuzon. When the Council itself returns for a last battle at the end of the book, Judah's final actions preserve the Council so that the process of anamnesis can continue and the Platonic idea it represents remains intact. Though, as one character says toward the end, "There's no plan to history," Judah makes sure there is, at least, hope.
The anamnesis section of the book is a minor masterpiece, a story that is emotionally affecting, philosophically interesting, well written, inventive, and gripping. It is a pastiche of various types of writing -- most clearly tales of the Old West -- which also manages to maintain its own integrity. It echoes much labor history, utilizing archetypes from strikes and union battles past. (I couldn't help thinking of the role of railroads in the Mexican Revolution, and I'm sure other readers will think of various parallels.) It is, appropriately, filled with the excitement of underdog stories, of good guys versus bad guys, fueled with a naive (but necessary) belief in wondrous progress.
Mieville deserves accolades for letting his vision be larger and more realistic than many other writers would with similar material, because other writers would either cynically show the revolutionary fervor of the anamnesis section to be misplaced and ignorant, or would allow the Iron Council to triumph over evil and create a utopia in New Crobuzon. Mieville shows that revolution is much more complex than most revolutionaries expect, that human beings have many motivations, that events may not be what they seem, effects may be impossible to predict, and good guys seldom win for very long. That he does this without a trace of cynicism in his tone or in the structure of the novel is remarkable. (The only book I can think to compare it to, at least in this respect, is Norman Rush's Mating, though the books are vastly different.)
Taken as a trilogy, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council offer a wide view of change, loyalty, and fantasy. Each of the books is about the need for fantasy despite the inevitable ability of reality to shatter all dreams, or turn them into nightmares. It is the process of dreaming that Mieville celebrates, suggesting that when people wish and hope and dream they can create meaningful change in themselves and even the world, though no change is permanent, and ghastly costs may be attached. In each of the books, people place their faith and trust in characters who end up being less or more than they seemed, often to the detriment of the trust -- and yet it is that trust which provided the impetus for the characters to do remarkable things, to dream, to change. Loyalty, then, is worthwhile, even though it often leads to sorrow and danger. New Crobuzon changes in the time from the opening page of Perdido Street Station to the closing page of Iron Council, and it is not a good change, but a reactionary and oppressive one. Great sacrifices are made, but little progress. But there is some potential within the city that lures the wayward back, both in The Scar and Iron Council, that keeps them believing, hoping, dreaming, that illuminates moments of happiness and wholeness. Over and over again characters try to escape New Crobuzon, to find joy in life elsewhere, but always they must return.
The three books are adventure novels, ones with similar plots overall: a mystery is raised and slowly solved, leading to unexpected outcomes, the main characters' lives are imperiled, the setting threatened with total destruction, and then lots of people kill each other, with bittersweet results. The formula works well in Iron Council up until the last two hundred pages, partly because of the complex juxtapositions of chronology and events, but threatening New Crobuzon yet again with eldritch forces from beyond seemed unnecessary, and I could have lived with about half as many battles, because the book began to feel more like a scenario for a roleplaying game than a novel: one seemingly impossible battle ("Good dice roll!") leads to an even more seemingly impossible battle ("Your weapons aren't effective against noncorporeal entities, but luckily coming down the hill...") leads to another and another and....
While I hope Mieville develops a new formula soon, I also understand that the one he keeps reverting to is inherent for the kind of story he wants to tell, and that it has been done much worse by other writers. Many readers won't mind at all -- will, in fact, find the innumerable battles to be the best moments of the books. Mieville has so much else to offer, though, that it seems a shame he always ties things up by having his characters spend most of their time killing each other.
Mieville has stated in interviews that he does not want to create stories with simple "good vs. evil" morality, but that is generally what he does. The government of New Crobuzon is populated entirely with people who operate with as much love and compassion as a Dark Lord. Mieville's main characters are often conflicted, impulsive, selfish, and wonderfully complex, but they end up fighting against forces that are entirely loathsome, which is a cop-out.
There is much to celebrate about Iron Council, though, and much of the book demonstrates a prodigious achievement of craft and imagination. It is more complex and less bloated than The Scar, wider ranging in scope and philosophy than Perdido Street Station, and yet it maintains and builds off of those books' tremendous imaginative energy. It is not at all perfect, and will not be to everyone's taste, nor to every Mieville fan's taste, but it rewards attention and thought, which is more than can be said for many of the books it shares shelf space with on the New Books rack at bookstores.