After the horrible experience of reading Perdido Street Station I promised myself I'd never dive back into Mieville's work - particularly not if it involved the world of Bas-Lag - but, well, I got this free in a goody bag and I was in-between Horus Heresy novels to inflict on Fliss, so against my better judgement I decided to give this a go.
Whatever else I might want to say about Mieville, I'll give him this: he's somehow managed to produce a book that's simultaneously worse, better and frighteningly similar to Perdido... all at the same time.
(Spoilers follow, including some for Perdido Street Station)
The result is almost like reading an idiosyncratic history writer taking on a fever-dream of the industrial revolution. This happened, and then this, and then this. There's no doubt that the thises in question are interesting and well-described, but the emotional resonance is little greater than one might feel reading about the depredations of the Mongol hordes - you know its bad but there's not enough context.
The plot itself is structurally very different to that of Perdido..., but Mieville's icy cynicism is so pronounced that similarities abound, even beyond Sudden Character Death Syndrome. Both books, for instance, involve a major plot in which the protagonists suffer tremendously in order to save New Crobuzon from annihilation at the hands (proboscises) of forces targetting the city due to the actions of the rich and powerful. In each case, those responsible for the problem (and for many other atrocities besides) end the book just as powerful and unpleasant as ever, whilst the people's saviours go unremarked at best, hunted at worst. Both books are centered around an unconventional romance which ends in the crippling or death of one partner and the utter ruining of the other.
Iron Council earns that tragedy. Perdido... flirted with the political ramifications of the fascist New Crobuzon; Iron Council dives right in. This proves to be less interesting than Der Grimnebulin and Rudgutter in their various struggles against the slake-moths - the one area in which the earlier novel clearly comes out ahead - but it ties the book into a long, sad history of vibrant egalitarian idealists getting crushed by faceless uniformed goons. It's not fun to read, but it's not like you don't see the trouble coming down the (perpetual train's) line.
So, like Perdido..., Iron Council is not an enjoyable book. It's a fascinating and moving one - even if that movement is badly muted by, ironically, making things too bad for those we wish to sympathise with. And if it's not as enthralling as Perdido..., and if it's ending is still pretty depressing, well, at least Mieville has replaced a "fuck you" conclusion with one that says "don't you understand we're all fucked?".
Which rather gets to the heart of what Mieville does so upsettingly well. For all the wondrous fantastical invention that went into Bas-Lag, things there seem a little too real for comfort. The one question that keeps suggesting itself through these 614 pages is this: when is our own Iron Council coming? And is it, like tomorrow, like the perpetual train, doomed to be always coming but to never arrive?