The novel opens with a group of misfits fleeing a militia while seeking a man named Judah who himself is seeking the mysterious Iron Council. This long section contains as many unanswered questions as it does exposition: Why are they seeking him? How do they know him? Why is he fleeing? Who is the mysterious man who from a vast distance is able to whisper into the mind of Cutter–the protagonist?
After this section, the novel splits into two storylines. One storyline is contemporary to the opening sequence and is set in New Crobuzon, site of Perdito Street Station, where a man named Ori is seeking involvement in an underground movement against the city’s totalitarian government. This portion contains one outstanding scene showing Miéville at the top of his form, involving a theater scene commemorating a revolutionary martyr who was more likely a murderous thug.
The other storyline drifts back several decades to when Judah was involved in the creation of the Iron Council. This is the best portion of the novel, more colorful than the portions set in New Crobuzon, and also considerably more exciting. But it takes 150 pages of meandering to reach it, and it only covers 150 of the books 550 pages. What happens afterwards is much less interesting, and spends much of its time meandering in New Crobuzon before returning to the Iron Council again.
My major complaint with Iron Council is that it is not sufficiently engaging. Miéville does not get into the heads of any of the characters, so their motivation and personalities are virtually nonexistent the entire book. Their actions are rarely justified emotionally, so much of the book feels like Miéville is moving chess pieces across the page rather than writing a living, flowing story. For example, we know from Perdito Street Station that the government of New Crobuzon is evil, but that is not sufficient justification for why the members of the underground wish to overthrow it, or for Ori’s intended involvement in it either (my notes show that page 370 was the first time Ori showed a hint of emotional depth at all). Revolutionaries always have personal motives, whether born out of some innate philosophy, or from some interactions with members of the government, but as readers we need to know and understand what those motives are.
Even in the scenes of Judah and the creation of the Iron Council, while the events leading up to it reveal more of those people’s motives, we still never get into their heads, so that while we understand the incredible personal stakes they are facing, we do not experience the emotional reactions of any of the people involved.
On the positive side, Miéville still writes exceptionally well, so that every scene is filled with color and exotica. And since the plot is basically a thriller, the last two hundred pages do race towards two different-but-related climaxes, one in New Crobuzon itself, and one involving the Iron Council which is moving towards the city in an attempt to involve itself in the first climax. Readers who enjoy thrillers, which to me seem the prototype of chess games with minimally-developed characters anyway, might not find the lack of personal involvement in Iron Council a problem in the face of the exoticism and borderline-thriller plot. However, in both Perdito Street Station and The Scar, I empathized with the people in them, and their motivations made sense on individual bases. They were real people actually living the story rather than merely being part of the scenery, which is often the feeling I got from Iron Council. In both previous novels Miéville provided a full spectrum of reading experiences, exoticism with plot and real people, and I felt much of that was missing here. Were this his first novel that I read, I probably would have enjoyed its considerable strengths and interest more. But Iron Council is not comparable to his two immediately-prior novels, so its failings were more glaring in my opinion. Thus I recommend this novel with caution.