I’m going to warn readers in advance that this review might dance the edge of spoilers. I’m not going to say much that you can’t get from reading the front and back cover, but Mieville writes this novel as if everything is a giant mystery. The entire first part involves a group of characters searching for a mysterious someone. Who is it? Mieville won’t say! It’s mysterious. And then, you finally discover that it’s…Judah Low, a new character. There’s a similar tease and reveal with the “Iron Council.” I think these sorts of mysteries for mystery’s sake are good examples of what’s annoyed me about Mieville’s earlier works. That said, as a whole, I liked this novel much better than the two previous novels set on the Weird world of Bas-Lag.
As I said, a group of adventurers from New Crobuzon are off in the wilderness looking for Judah Low. Among them is Judah’s lover Cutter, who exhibits some of the greatest character depth I’ve seen from Mieville so far. There’s not much more to him than his obsession with Judah, but Mieville handles that with a defter touch than I’ve seen in the previous works. Judah, in turn, is looking for the Iron Council, a revolutionary collective of former rail workers who stole the entire railroad (it’s sort of a stretch, but a fun one, and this is Bas-Lag we’re talking about). Judah can create magical golems, and he was one of the heroes of the revolution that created the Iron Council, which is narrated in the novel’s driving, exciting centerpiece. Judah left the Iron Council to connect with protest movements in New Crobuzon, but he now wants to return. Meanwhile, we also get the story of a brewing revolution in the city itself that parallels some of the history of the Paris Commune. We follow one of the revolutionaries named Ori, who has to navigate some conflicting motives from some of the movements’ leaders. Disenchanted with an ongoing war with the Tesh, and sick of the city government’s brutal oppression, the people rise up, and look to the fabled Iron Council’s return as their best hope of victory.
This is the first time that the story of a Bas-Lag novel felt big enough to match the majesty of the setting and epic enough to befit the significant page-length. Mieville is no longer dancing around the themes he cares about with obfuscated mutant bug metaphors; he’s a Marxist, and this book is about revolution. It can be heavy-handed at times, and I’m not sure I’d agree with all of Mieville’s politics, but it really does feel like THE story he’s been trying to tell. The word “history” echoes through the book, replete with all of the teleological connotations of Mieville’s beliefs – is it the inexorable expansion of industrial capitalism, represented by the octopus-like tentacles of rail, or is it the march to a workers’ utopia? Mieville uses these question as a backdrop that, most importantly, heightens the character drama, something that I felt was missing from The Scar and Perdido Street Station.
That’s not to say that this novel solves all of the problems of its predecessors. I’m not positive that Cutter and Jonah and their laconic love story, are that much richer than Bellis or Isaac. Maybe they just felt that way to me because I enjoyed the plot more. And, I did not connect to Ori, who did feel as passive and immaterial as the characters of the earlier books. The worst offender is Drogon, a susurrating vaquero. He has magical powers based on whispers, which is pretty cool, and his ranch-hand get-up adds to the vaguely western feel of portions of the book, but he doesn’t contribute much else. He arrives, makes a big splash with his power and aesthetic, and then disappears until he has a role to play at the end. It seems that Mieville has to force every bit of weirdness into Bas-Lag that he can; no need to develop the ideas into a coherent world/plot/character. I’m starting to suspect that I preferred The City & The City because the clarity and focus of the central concept forced Mieville to develop things a bit more, and maybe the same can be said about this book as well. The Revolution at the book’s core gives it a stronger structure and message than the bug hunt of Perdido Street Station or the vague unfinished quest of The Scar. I’m certainly not one to complain about a new twist on fantasy, but I have to declare Bas-Lag a slight disappointment. There’s a lot of new, but still not as much of the depth I’m looking for in fantasy world-building.