Tuesday, April 18, 2006
"Iron Council" by China Mieville. C+
Uh - this post may contain spoilers. So you've been warned, alright?
An awful ending can ruin a movie. I know this from personal experience. You know the film Down With Love? Well, I loved it, until the end when it revealed a twisty I-invented-this-whole-Down-with-love-book-to-gain-your-affection-after-being-spurned-in-your-past plot that had more holes in it than Swiss cheese, and put a big, crushing, damp weight on what had been an otherwise light and fluffy movie.
Or the Irish tearjerker Millions which began as an adorable morality movie about a boy obsessed with saints who finds a duffel bag full of stolen cash, and wants to give it to the poor. The ending - the robber looking for his dough ransacks the boy's house on Christmas Eve, so the family ends up using Stolen Money to give themselves a Merry Christmas - disarmed the moral centre of the film! Using stolen cash is wrong! Wasn't morality like, the whole point of the film?
And don't even mention A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Aliens? Puh-leeze.
This is what happened to China Mieville's Iron Council. It started off as a wonderful, insanely inventive novel about a rebellion against a violent government, but ended up at a stand-still with nothing resolved. Nothing. Now, if you haven't read Iron Council but, as a China Mieville fan or whatever, are planning to read it anyways, stop right here. I'm going to go into detail about the end, only because I found it so disappointing and anti-climactic compared to the first part of the novel.
The first three quarters, or more accurately, the first nine tenths of the novel concern runaway Cutter and his friends who are looking for their leader Judah Low, a talented golem-maker who vanished from the city of New Crobuzon in order to search for the mythical Iron Council. Judah, having been one of the people who helped to start the Iron Council - a group of abused railway workers who absconded with a train and several sections of rail years ago - knows that the militia of New Crobuzon have discovered the Council's position and are planning to eliminate them as quickly and violently as possible. He feels it's his job to warn the Iron Council to flee. Their act of rebellion against New Crobuzon became a symbol of freedom in the face of oppression, and Judah has no intention of seeing it snuffed out by New Crobuzon's vengeful army.
The story contains a wide variety of original creatures beautiful, grotesque, or just plain weird (how about a type of boar that's raised by wine-makers because it grows grapes on its flanks? Cool, eh?) - but Mieville never info dumps. He mentions them in passing because they're freaky or cool or help to build the vastly detailed setting, but without drowning us in information because they're not relevant to the story.
The characters are all finely tuned, although at times they do become almost static symbols of themselves. There's Ann-Hari - the de facto leader of the Iron Council and Judah's erstwhile lover, Judah himself, Cutter - a man desperate for Judah's affection, and hundreds of others. Some are human, some are vodyanoi (frog-people), some are Cactus people (I'm not kidding - I kept being reminded of the Cactuars from the Final Fantasy videogame series who'd kill you with the move "10 000 Needles").
Upon reaching the place where the Iron Council have settled, Judah and Cutter try to convince the Councillors to flee away from New Crobuzon, but instead, the Iron Council decides it's high time to come back to New Crobuzon, arrive in an inspiring blaze of glory, and defeat the evil government once and for all. So here they are, chugging on their giant train closer and closer to New Crobuzon (once they clear a section of track, Councillors left behind tear it up and build it again in front of the train to keep it moving) - where, as the spies report, thousands are militia are waiting to take them out on sight. Here is the kicker that ruined the book for me - Judah creates a very powerful and difficult time golem that grabs the train, and freezes it in time. Well, halfof it - the other half crashes into it and explodes, killing the rest.
So the Iron Council, instead of reaching the city, is frozen in time. That's the ending. Ann-Hari (who was thrown clear, and thus is NOT trapped in time), kills Judah for doing it (she rightly claims "Iron Council was never yours, Judah, you had no right", whereas Judah, formerly sound of mind, blathers on about how "He's saved them, they're safe now..."). Of course, Judah can't dismantle it, his death doesn't dismantle it, there's no telling WHAT will dismantle this spell. No one can touch the frozen train, so technically the militia can't reach it, but nothing happens. The militia are still there, death and chaos reign, there's no resolution - just a train (half of it, anyway) stuck in time. WHAT THE HELL?
Gah! Maybe, I might understand it later, in that nebulous time when I am considered "to be older and wiser", but right now it seems to me like the author created this impossible situation (one train with hundreds of rebels vs. 1000s of trained soldiers) and then froze time so he wouldn't have to go through with it. The rest of the book, however, is marvellous. So my suggestion would be to read through most of it, or at least until Cutter and the others manage to defeat a magician attempting to call a death-god on New Crobuzon, and then close the book there and imagine that the Iron Council arrived to save the say, or went out fighting in a blaze of martyrdom.