I have dithered a lot over Miéville. I went from solid dislike in Un Lun Dun and The City and the City, to adoration in Kraken and Embassytown, to calmer but still positive feelings in The Scar… and now we’re into “wtf”. It’s not exactly that I disliked Iron Council, and I’m not in the position I was in when I finished tCatC. I know I still like his work, because I have those three positive experiences to look back on. But I also know if I’d read this first, I wouldn’t have come back again without a lot of persuasion. Possibly even more than it took to get me to read Kraken.
Iron Council is just a bit weird. The friend who suggested I borrow it said it was the Miéville novel in which you could most tell he stood in a general election for the Socialist Alliance. This is most certainly true… and not that great, if I’m honest. Granted, this solidly rules me out as the target audience, and also granted, “weird” is pretty much what Miéville does as a matter of course but even so… it didn’t sit right with me as a book. It felt pulled in too many directions by concerns which weren’t just “the plot”, and it ended up feeling disjointed and emotionless. Which is a pretty stunning outcome since so much of what does go on in the book is, regardless of your political stance, fairly emotive stuff. I think the thing that really caused that disjoint for me is the long, central flashback section following one of the main characters. The early sections… well, I don’t particularly like Cutter or Ori, but they’re still relatable characters you can grasp, and the plot proceeds as plots are wont to do, and for all that it isn’t stellar, it does at least work. And the latter sections likewise. But the middle bit… it felt incredibly long, especially when compared to the chapter lengths on either side, where we flit between Cutter and Ori’s perspectives at a reasonable pace. Judah is not, I think, meant to be relatable. I’m not certain he’s meant to be likeable. But if he’s not, then this isn’t that clearly signalled either and I’m really not sure what I’m supposed to be thinking about him.
If you’ll excuse the crudeness, what I actually think is that Judah is an arse.
He has a… not very thoroughly explored goodness/martyr complex/I don’t even know what feeling inside him – as he himself describes it, obliquely. It urges him to particular actions and choices. It feels like something that could have been interesting if we’d heard more about it, as I’m not sure if it’s meant to be just a weird impulse that Judah feels the urge to name, or something more, or a criticism of his self-image. We just… have no real idea. So it muddles along with no real understanding and we sort of give up on ever getting one and resign ourselves to it. A lot of the book feels like this to me.
Judah is also just so arrogant, so determined to be right, so blindly obsessed, that he’s not a fun character to read about, nor to be described by other characters. Cutter has a lot of feelings regarding Judah, and even through the lens of these, with all their complexity and depth… I just don’t like or care for him at all. Though possibly it doesn’t help that Cutter is jealous and petty and totally unlikeable too.
I am sure most, if not all, of this is deliberate. But it doesn’t make it any more palateable. I couldn’t enjoy any of it, because it felt bleak and I felt uninvested. It was very hard to care about anyone. If it was deliberate, I’m not really sure I see the point of doing it like that (ok, no, that’s not fair, I logically accept that people have different taste to me and this may just be catering for them… but other than that…).
On the other hand, and not just because I feel I have to say something nice, there is one really strong redeeming feature for the whole thing. Miéville’s prose is beautiful. Even more so than usual, I felt, though maybe that was just because I had more time to stop and enjoy it while I despaired of every single character involved. He really has a way with words, and possibly even more in this than in Kraken, which I would otherwise have ranked as his best wordsy book that I have read. It definitely makes up for the lack of realistic character feeling (which I won’t go into too much because I have definitely done it to death elsewhere). But they’re not enough to make it, for me, an enjoyable book.
I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s bad, though I know that’s the tone I’m really conveying. I know, realistically, that it’s not. What it really is is the China Miéville book I’ve so far read for which I am the least in the target audience*. And that’s rather frustrating because I did enjoy The Scar a lot. It feels… mildly vexing… to be so outside of what the book wants its reader to be when it’s part of a series I have thus far enjoyed. But that doesn’t make it a bad book… just one I really didn’t feel any sort of connection to. Would definitely recommend to more socialist friends than I, at least.
Up next – Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (which I have nearly finished and which is thus far excellent).
*Except for Perdido Street Station. It is not possible for me to be less the target audience for something than that. I hear there are GIANT MOTHS. I am never the target audience for GIANT MOTHS.