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Literature / Iron Council

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The Iron Council is coming.

Published in 2004, Iron Council is the third book of China Miéville's Bas-Lag Cycle. Iron Council is held to be the most politically-charged installment in the series, which all things considered, is somewhat inevitable given the turbulent political climate that the book takes place in.

The main events in the book take place over twenty years after the events of Perdido Street Station and The Scar, and are not presented in a strictly chronological order. For the first time in the Bas-Lag Cycle, the book is narrated by several people, Cutter, Judah and Ori.

In Iron Council, New Crobuzon is at war with the rival city-state, Tesh. Within the city itself, political unrest abounds. There are many gangs, organizations and resistances protesting against the oppressive government, while the people themselves remain in silent support. It becomes quite clear that a civil war is about to break loose.

Meanwhile, a group of travelers trek across Bas-Lag in order to find the mysterious Iron Council, a group of renegade railway workers that turned against their employers to create an idyllic nomadic society built around a stolen train. The existence of the Iron Council is fabled by the citizens of New Crobuzon, and a bastion of hope against the tyrannical rule of the city. Because of this, the Militia of New Crobuzon send out elite troops to destroy it and crush the ideals that it represents.

Iron Council provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Action Bomb: One of Judah's sneakier uses of golems is to sic a bunch of them on fire-wielding militia. Gunpowder golems. With metal spikes embedded in them for shrapnel.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The main reason the government of New Crobuzon outlawed all but the most minor and supervised use of constructs. The constructs were gaining self-awareness, and were summarily destroyed once the government found out. Golems were then used to supplant constructs.
  • Alien Geometries: Spiral Jacobs can go all over New Crobuzon by taking physically impossible shortcuts. No backstreet exists that leads from here to there, and if one existed it shouldn't take so little time to cross — but Spiral Jacobs makes them exist for him, and he crosses.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Taken to the extreme, where one of the characters, devotee of a god of secrets, doesn't even know their own gender. Followers of this deity forfeit knowledge about themselves to honor their patron, and this particular priest lost knowledge of what sex they happened to be. Self-examination can't clarify matters, as the character is blind to their own body features.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Judah is a really weird example. He's slept with people of both sexes, but even his lovers aren't sure whether it was out of lust or good-natured politeness.
  • Anti-Climax: An In-Universe example. Judah's last attempt to save the Council only succeeds in robbing them and their supporters (and the readers) of the apotheosis that they seek.
  • Armies Are Evil: Given Mieville's views on power structures and socialism, this is to be expected as in the previous Bas Lag novels. In Iron Council's case, although there is passing mention to battles against Tesh forces, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that the militia exist only to commit war crimes against any civilian they see and antagonise our heroes.
  • Author Tract: Mieville's socialist views are never more anvilicious than in Iron Council.
  • Body Horror:
    • The Torque, which did various things to unlucky members of the Iron Council. The only one described in detail is when a railway car full of people turns into a giant amoeba-like cell filled with blobs that wave at people and make cetacean-like sounds.
    • Proasmae, which are flesh elementals that can absorb flesh and bones, living or dead, into their bodies. Think about that for a moment.
    • Judah's corpse-golem also, the moreso in that the corpses' relatives are right there to see it.
  • Book Ends: They are always coming.
  • Bury Your Gays: Oddly averted. In books where being a named character and being sympathetic/a decent human being is usually a recipe for death, and the named-protagonist body count runs into the double digits, Cutter manages to make it out mostly in one piece. Judah, however, does not.
  • Cast Full of Gay: Pretty much everyone is gay or bisexual. At least the men are, and there are no significant female characters except Ann-Hari and Toro.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • One Remade is described in an anecdote in Perdido Street Station, the very first book, before becoming a major player in this one. She accidentally killed her baby by shaking it. The judge sentenced her to be Remade with her child's grasping arms coming out of her face so that she would never forget her crime. Later she becomes a gang leader and wears a metal bull-shaped helmet that conceals the arms in its horns.
    • A character also mentions that the Ambassador from Tesh is a vagabond by custom, and in the last book this is important as the villain and source of impending arcane doom is Spiral Jacobs, the vagabond.
  • Compelling Voice: Drogon, a "whispersmith" or master of the magical discipline of susurration, who can project his whispered commands into a targets ears from miles away.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Bellis Coldwine is said to be Isaac's girlfriend, after being the protagonist of The Scar.
    • The Plague of Nightmares is also mentioned or referenced multiple times.
    • Ulliam is Remade with his head facing backwards and mentions looking after dangerous animals in his previous occupation. He still has a mirrored helmet.
    • Late in the book, Cutter meets an unnamed Remade airship pilot with a python for an arm who had previously appeared in Perdido Street Station as a militia member, now working for the Collective. During his brief appearance in that book he met Mayor Rudgutter's secretary Stem-Fulcher, who is now the mayor.
    • The Flexible Puppeteers are named for Benjamin Flex, whose work as editor of Runagate Rampant got him killed in the first book.
    • The Grindylow, who were enemies of New Crobuzon in the second book, are now said to be allied with it against Tesh.
  • Cool Train: The Perpetual Train, later home of the titular council which was initially crawling along laying its own rails as the forefront of an expanding railway network — it has carriages containing everything needed to keep the community of workers building the lines alive and well fed, from an abattoir to a church. It later goes rogue, and the Council organise its rails to be taken up behind it as they are laid ahead of it, so it essentially becomes a giant, moving La Résistance town.
  • Crapsack World: Which gets steadily more and more so as the novel progresses.
  • Deus ex Machina: Qurabin is a character who can trade bits of his life experience and memories for information from a mysterious source. Without his intervention, the protagonists would never find the Iron Council (they had no solid leads until then came across Qurabin), and would never have learned the truth about Spiral Jacobs, who was moments from wiping New Crobuzon off the map.
  • Dungeon Punk: Magic, referred to as "Thaumaturgy", is commonplace and used by practically every skilled profession.
  • Eye of Newt: One of the characters is a Teshi monk from the order of the Hidden who can use an ability to discover secrets. To do so, however, the monk has to sacrifice one of their own memories or abilities each time they dig up new info.
  • Faceless Goons: The Militia, who vaciliate between Elite and Regular Mooks, depending on the needs of the scene.
  • Fantastic Nuke: The city-killer (aka Hecatomb) in Iron Council is beyond even colourbombs (another kind of fantastic nuke) for sheer alien annihilation. It ERASES CITIES. And casts ripples of destruction BACKWARDS IN TIME.
  • Fantastic Racism:
    • Briefly towards the vodyanoi, described as "riverpig," and to a greater extent to the Remade.
    • The Quillers are a racist faction in New Crobuzon, who are known for violence towards the non-humans of the city.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: New Crobuzon is heavily inspired by London.
  • Get It Over With: Mayor Stem-Fulcher, completely calm even facing death.
  • Giant Spider: The Weaver makes another appearance in Iron Council in front of some surprised railway workers before the revolt.
  • Golem: Judah Low is a master of Bas-Lag's magical discipline known as "golemcrafting", wherein magicians channel power into anything that isn't living. Most of the Golems created are fairly standard (blade, flesh, metal, clay, wood), However the main character of Iron Council creates increasingly more fantastic golems some of the more memorable ones being: poison, light, dark, and TIME.
  • Helping Hands: Handlingers, who play a minor role in the civil war and the attempts to capture the party seeking the Iron Council.
  • Homage: The underground golem-fighting community is a parody of Robot Wars.
  • Horse of a Different Color: The Rudewood's hotchi ride oversized chickens. They also use these oversized, highly aggressive roosters in gladitorial cockfights.
  • Hub City: New Crobuzon is enormous enough to be considered its own state, and is even at war with another city.
  • Improvised Golems: Judah can make golems out of literally anything, and there's a great deal of fun in guessing what crazy substance he'll make them out of next.
  • Keystone Army: Despite the war going so badly for New Crobuzon that it tried repeatedly to formally surrender, the death of Spiral Jacobs and consequent failure of the Hecatomb causes Tesh to fold instantly for some reason and pay all kinds of concessions to New Crobuzon.
  • Knight Templar Parent: It is way, way too easy to read both Judah and Ann-Hari as being this, to the whole of Iron Council. At least, until Judah spoils the Bolivian Army Ending in a big way...
  • La Résistance: The Iron Council takes up that role in this book, although there are many smaller groups within the city of New Crobuzon itself, such as Toro's gang.
  • Lost Him in a Card Game: Happened to Judah when he worked for a professional gambler.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: In a roundabout way, the New Crobuzon militia's policy of committing war crimes, intended to hurt Tesh economically, not only wins the war against Tesh, but also saves the entire city from certain destruction:
    • If the militia hadn't gone out of their way to slaughter Qurabin's monastery, then Qurabin wouldn't have had any resentment against Tesh for failing to protect them, nor would he/she have ever met up with Cutter's group in their search for the Iron Council.
    • If he/she hadn't met up with Cutter's group, they would never have recognized that the spiral designs peppering New Crobuzon were actually part of Spiral Jacob's hecatomb ritual.
    • Without Qurabin, there would have been no way to identify who Jacobs really was, nor anyway to actually stop the ritual and save the city even if they did know.
    • By stopping the ritual, Qurabin's actions saved and the city and also compelled Tesh to surrender to New Crobuzon and begin paying reparations.
  • The Magocracy: There are passing references to a nation called "The Witchocracy", but it's not explored in great detail, beyond being ruled by a "sorcerer-witch hierarchy" per China Mieville's own notes.
  • Meaningful Name: Judah Lo(e)w is the name of a folklore rabbi from Prague who created a golem to protect the Jewish ghettos.
  • Mundane Fantastic: To the point that Judah, a character who can create and control golems, disguised his craft as puppetry because golemetry is so commonplace that people will pay more money to see a puppeteer than a mage.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Spiral Jacobs.
  • Oh, My Gods!: Human residents from New Crobuzon mostly all swear to the same deity, Jabber, using the stock phrases like "By Jabber..." and occasionally mixing in the lowercase "god" for flavor.
  • Plant Aliens: The cactacae are cactus-people, though not alien.
  • Praetorian Guard: The Clypean Guard, responsible for protecting the Mayor.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: It all goes to hell. Counting all the horrible betrayals, Senseless Sacrifices, and Face Heel Turns in the novel would take up more room than a spoiler tag could conceivably hold. Suffice it to say that by the end of the novel, the Iron Council does not technically lose in their Bolivian Army Ending... but they don't win either.
  • Reality Is Out to Lunch: The Cacotopic Stain, an area of desert (well, it's desert now) which is completely consumed by a Torque storm, and Suroch where New Crobuzon dropped a "torque bomb" in a past war. The way they're described, they're part nuclear wasteland, part half-opened door to the abyss. It is testament to the effectiveness of the New Crobuzon militia that when the Iron Council originally revolts, they flee towards the Cacotopic Stain.
  • Samus Is a Girl: Toro in Iron Council. Also, the Mayor, both within a few pages of each other.
  • Schizo Tech: The novels are set in a world that is roughly late-Victorian in technological terms with steam power being the driving force of industry and neon lights and phonographs being recent inventions, but also has robots and a long-defunct weather control machine. Justified in-universe, in that it's implied that the world was more advanced centuries ago, and in fact many "new" inventions are merely rediscovered.
  • Secret Police: The Militia of New Crobuzon used to be Secret Police, but have abandoned the idea and have started ruling the city more openly.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Like the other Bas Lag Cycle books, the events of the story don't have much effect on New Crobozon's status quo.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Baron, whose trauma-induced lack of regard for human life (including his own) creeps out his fellow murderous anarchists.
  • Sigil Spam: Spiral Jacobs draws spirals everywhere he goes, with varying degrees of complexity. New Crobuzon's various revolutionary movements end up adopting them as a general symbol of freedom and start drawing spirals everywhere too. Jacob's spirals have a functional purpose: each one is part of a framework for summoning a hecatomb that will obliterate the city.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Judah, although he still has plenty of idealism that gets him into trouble.
  • Steampunk: As a story about a steam train as a symbol of resistance against a corrupt, warmongering, imperialist, autocratic power, Iron Council fits to a T.
  • Taken for Granite: Smokestone, an unnatural vapor that spontaneously hardens into rock, entombs people unlucky enough to be caught up in a cloud when it hardens.
  • The Mole: Drogon, on behalf of Wrightby.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Toro's gang, who seek violent reprisal as opposed to the other groups in the Collective.
  • The Tooth Hurts: Brief mention is made of Tesh using "toothbombs" which seemingly cause one's teeth to explode outward through their face.
  • Time Stands Still: Judah's time golem freezes the Iron Council in time.
  • Touched by Vorlons: Judah Low learns how golem magic works by studying a race of creatures born with this ability, but is only able to use it himself after being touched by the Stiltspear chief.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Runagate Rampant and the other subversive groups present by the point of Iron Council.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Ann-Hari to Judah when he freezes the Iron Council in time.
  • The Worm That Walks: A throng-bear, an unintelligent bear made out of butterflies and birds.
  • Wretched Hive: New Crobuzon blows almost everything else out of water in terms of sheer ugliness. It's ruled by vicious capitalists who ignore crime against ordinary citizens, but send death squads to deal with dissenters, essentially ensuring that the city stays a brutal lawless mess forever. Criminals, even ones guilty of small-time theft, are punished by mutilating their bodies in horrible and ironic (in reference to the crime) ways. No wonder the people want to revolt