The Root by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun is the first novel in a probable trilogy called The Wrath and the Athenaeum. Erik Allen, a former child star, comes into his divine super powered inheritance and finds himself a soldier in a war to save Earth. Lil, an apprentice librarian, similarly finds herself thrust into the effort to save her world of Zebub. The threat to both worlds is the same. Can the heroes and their allies save both worlds? Or will the incompetence of those in power lead to doom for all?
I really want to like The Root. The novel has a lot going for it. But the novel also has serious flaws that frustrate me to no end. So, in the end, I am disappointed.
The Root is an epic fantasy with a split narrative featuring two different genres. The narrative starring Erik is urban fantasy, and the narrative starring Lil is new weird.
The biggest selling point for the novel is Tilahun’s imagination. Zebub is an amazing construction deeply indebted to the New Weird. That world is deeply strange, monstrous, and awe inspiring. The imagination extends to the less “human” of the descendants of the gods called either Angelics or Antes depending on world. Many of the descriptions of those characters are amazing.
The Root is also noted for the diversity of its characters. Erik is a gay teen among several lgbtq characters, people of color outnumber white characters, and there are about equal representation along gender lines.
Erik’s character initially sold me on the novel. He is a compelling mix of guilt and rage. I love the chapters from his perspective.
Lil is more conventionally a fantasy protagonist but no less compelling than Erik.
Now, I have to get into the negatives.
I love Erik’s character. I want more chapters from his perspective. Hell, I want all the San Francisco chapters from his perspective. Pity, he has to share with practically every other character.
And that is the biggest problem with The Root. The narrative is hopelessly muddled by too many point of view characters that do not add anything to the narrative. I almost bailed on the book sixty or so pages in because of this. And I think that was the character’s only chapter.
The Root would be a stronger novel if Erik and Lil are the only point of view characters. But the epic genre tends to require multiple points of view even if they, in the end, add nothing to the overall story.
Another major problem is Tilahun’s tendency to exposition. Telling trumps showing. The most glaring example is Erik’s awakening his power. The reader is told what happened. Never shown. Even though a lot of authorial soap boxing would be enhanced if he described the event rather than relate it in conversation.
The plots are individually quite good. But the two strands do not cross. I expect they will though in book two.
In the end, I want to love The Root. But I just can’t. The excessive points of view and propensity to exposition wreck the pleasure of the reading. Maybe if I give the book a third go in the new year I will change my opinion. I hope so.
Tara Abernathy is a probationary associate at Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao. Her first job? Aid her mentor, Elayne Kevarian, in resurrecting a dead god. Not an easy feat. Not when there are forces seeking to impede the process. Such is a blurb for Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. This first book in The Craft Sequence is a very good, if slightly uneven, read.
The biggest selling point for Three Parts Dead is the world building. Think China Mieville unburdened by politics. The world is weird and fun. There are gods, there is lots of magic (here called Craft), there are gargoyles, fantasy cyborgs, etc. Alt Coulumb, the city where the action is mainly set, is an amazing creation that lures the reader into to an experience.
A setting can only do so much, though. Characters, too, must sell the work. The characters are well done.Tara Abernathy is a wonderful protagonist. Elayne Kevarian is even more compelling. Abelard, a supporting protagonist, is serviceable.
However, I came away feeling that the characters could have been more original. I felt that I had read these characters before. Several times.
The plot is really good. I especially love the villain’s scheme. It is a thing of beauty (if evil plots can be described as beautiful). The unraveling of the villain’s scheme, too, is a thing of beauty. The action, both magical and mundane, are very well done.
My biggest problem with Three Parts Dead, however, is how obvious the main antagonist is. The moment he first appears on the page, the reader knows he is the bad guy. You don’t know how, but you know. I wish it weren’t so obvious.
A secondary problem I have is that I am not fond of the epilogue at all.
All the negatives aside, though, I really enjoyed Three Parts Dead. I checked it out from the library, and I want to own it. And I want to check out the other books in the series.
The reasons why I’m condensing the final two parts of Iron Council are: I want to focus this post on Judah’s relationship to the Iron Council and explore why he does what he does, and to be honest, I’ve rather grown tired of these posts at the moment.
The moment that Judah releases his time golem is the moment that every event in his life depicted in the novel becomes relevant. He learned golemetry from the Siltspear, whose greatest magic is the production of these time golems during the hunt. In a way, I think that Judah is making up for his past failure. He could not save the Siltspear, he did not have the power and knowledge at the time. It only comes later, when he has something he wants to protect.
That something is Iron Council. It is, in part, what he identifies with. As a “leftist,” as a dissident in New Crobuzon, he is automatically sympathetic and willing to aid Iron Council in its initial striving for freedom. Indeed, he is instrumental in defending the perpetual train. He has a stake in it as the great defender. And he has a stake as its prophet in New Crobuzon.
However, I am not so sure that Iron Council is the only reason why Judah returns home. New Crobuzon, despite its horrors, injustices, and monstrosities, has an undeniable stranglehold on her citizens. Why else does New Crobuzon command such loyalty from those who would like to see the government fall? Perhaps it is a dream of creating a new New Crobuzon, one that is going to be like Iron Council writ large for all of Bas-Lag to see. A place of freedom, tolerance, and economic equality.
The dream of Iron Council, the dream of a new New Crobuzon is one fated to disappoint. The Collective has failed in its attempt to create a new New Crobuzon, and Iron Council is late to the battle, to the moment. Iron Council is marching to history, but history has already passed them by. And now, history will forever pass them by. When will the time golem expire? What happens then?
Was Judah right in imprisoning Iron Council in a time golem? Yes in the that he saved them from certain destruction. He knew that Iron Council was doomed. But did he have the right to steal the choice of Iron Council to return home, to fight for a reborn New Crobuzon? That is a harder question. Ann-Hari’s response is a deadly no.
This further raises the question as to whether or not Judah does this for ulterior motives beyond saving the Council. Did he do it for his own benefit (though he knew he was likely to die)? Is he truly even a Councillor?
It is clear that Judah’s intention was for Iron Council to flee elsewhere from New Crobuzon, to be the roving lord train among its environs. That Judah was manipulated by Wrightby through Pennyhaugh is without question. And how much influence did Drogon have on the decision to return to New Crobuzon?
In a way, I suspect that Judah always intended to freeze Iron Council in time if he failed to persuade them to not confront New Crobuzon. Why? Because Iron Council itself, the physical embodiment of the dream, the birth of a third Crobuzon must survive. For Judah, the physical symbol cannot be destroyed because the dream will die. The myth, the dream cannot exist without the physical form, without Iron Council. If Iron Council is destroyed, then so is the dream of liberating New Crobuzon.
And with Iron Council now frozen outside of time (and within the precincts of New Crobuzon), the dream is not dead, it lives on. Even though the Collective has been destroyed and New Crobuzon is undergoing a dizzying level of repression, the dream remains. The physicality of successful resistance is there, a monument. And the survivors of the Collective are grouping, Runagate Rampant is still there, telling the truth of both Iron Council and the Collective.
What Mieville is getting at here, is a symbolism for the endurance of the dream of Marx, of the Commune, of all of the failed movements to supplant industrial capitalism. Though the individual movements falter, the dream itself remains in every protest against economic and political injustice. Iron Council will always be there, no matter what thaumaturgies New Crobuzon throws at it.
As Marxism is at its root an economic theory, indivisible from capitalism, so Iron Council’s fate is tied to that of Wrightby. The whole novel can be seen as a gambit on Wrightby’s part to use Iron Council’s return as a means of finding a way to complete his railroad, his holy dream. Perhaps, he is the one who instigated the Militia sending a force to destroy Iron Council in the hopes that it would return to fight?
It is fitting, then, that Iron Council rests near the TRT station. It is a constant reminder that Capitalism is linked to Marxism, a ying and yang.
And that is why Iron Council must return to New Crobuzon, the two cannot live without the other.
This ends my explorations into the world of Bas-Lag. I will be returning to it, however, as I do intend on doing more in depth looks at certain aspects Bas-Lag. But that may be a while. I’m exhausted.
A rant is coming. “The Remaking” is the conclusion of the subplot of Iron Council. I both love this section as the best written, but I also find it frustrating that there is no Remaking.
What I mean is that New Crobuzon’s Commune (called the Collective) is doomed to failure. Indeed, the Militia has shrunk the areas under Collectivist control down to just three districts (Dog Fenn, Smog Bend, and Heath Barrow). Kinken has been destroyed (by those damn Quillers rather than the Militia), and much of the rest of the city is in pretty bad shape.
And Ori is reflective of that. Ori is the erstwhile protagonist of the even numbered sections, but Ori only appears in the third chapter and has been completely destroyed by the revelations of his being used by Toro and Spiral Jacobs and his knowledge that the Collective is doomed. He is a shell, an observer, he is cut off and adrift.
Perhaps, however, I am wrong that there is no permanent Remaking going on in the city. New Crobuzon will bear the scars of the conflict for years, decades to come. The Khepri have largely been expelled from New Crobuzon (Kinken destroyed, Creekside’s status is unknown, but the Khepri seems to have been hit pretty hard by the Quillers).
But, what I meant by the Remaking not holding, not lasting is that Spiral Jacobs’s attack, the many named city killer ritual, is a dud. Had the heroes not intervened, the city would have been destroyed. New Crobuzon is saved however, and I have a huge problem with how it is saved and that there is no after effects, even as what ever the Urbomach is almost came through.
I like the fact that Spiral Jacobs bested Judah Low. Judah is a great somnaturge, but he is no match for Spiral Jacobs. So, in a way, it is nice seeing Quarbin take out Jacobs. But I also see that as a cop out. Quarbin acts as a quick fix, a means of getting information quickly (though at the price of who Quarbin is). That Quarbin saves New Crobuzon is excellent, how Quarbin saves New Crobuzon is a stinker. He just asks the Hidden Moment for aid and everything is done? Such a disappointment.
That New Crobuzon would be saved is beyond question, though how Spiral Jacobs could be defeated is the source of tension. The thing is that the New Crobuzon-Tesh War is the subplot. The coming of Iron Council to New Crobuzon is the main plot, so it stands to reason that the more tension filled ending comes with Iron Council’s fate.
What bugs me is that there is no residual of the failed attack. New Crobuzon should be marked in some way, the murderspirit was just beginning to appear as Quarbin learns what he needs to do. That frustrates me as a reader.
But the murderspirit is damn cool. The entity of the too many epithets was going to possess the entire city, New Crobuzon become a ravenous monster set on devouring its own people. Brutal.
This raises the question, as I mentioned earlier, of why Tesh is doing this. Is the difficulty in communication going both ways? What logical sense does it make to destroy New Crobuzon. While it is the enemy now, economically, it can be made a decent trading partner after an agreeable conclusion to the war. And Tesh seems to have been in the stronger position at the time. So why try and destroy it? This almost reverses the assumptions about the Grindylow of the Gengris. Of course, it does give a highly emotional sendoff for Ori and takes a little away from the rebellion in New Crobuzon.
That the Collective is doomed to fail is beyond question. Just like the Parisian Commune in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War failed. It is difficult to overthrow a government, a system of doing things that are beneficial to some. It is clear that the Collectivists did not have the entire city on their side, perhaps they did not even have half of the city. And Parliament, the Militia, is at that moment unwilling to compromise. I wonder, really, if Stem-Fulcher’s assassination did not really strengthen the resolve of the government to fight on.
As I mentioned in my last posts on The Scar, it is interesting to note that there is a movement in the Middle East that is seeing the removal of many of the regions longstanding dictators. The reason the Lovers fell in The Scar is because they relied on the support of those they governed, they ruled through, perhaps, the illusion of consensus. When they lost the support of Armada, they had to give up. And their forces refused to attack the crowd. This is the key.
New Crobuzon’s government has not lost the backing of the Militia and the powerful elite that supports it. That there are a few defectors is unsurprising, but a loosely organized movement is unlikely to win against a better trained, better equipped, and motivated force. The only way New Crobuzon will change is if enough of the elites support change or if the Militia (or enough of it) switches sides to make the difference.
That’s it for now. Next time the fate of the Iron Council in “Sound and Light” and “The Monument”
The outskirts of the Cacotopic Stain is the featured setting in this section. Personally, there is a sense of disappointment. Is this all there is to the Stain? Changes to geography, mutations, inchmen, and a car transformed into a giant cell? All of these events, encounters, and mutations are cool, but could there not have been more?
“The Stain” is basically running, trying to escape the murder squad sent after it and trying to reach New Crobuzon in time to aid in the revolution there. And the urgency rises as a new threat unfolds.. .
The attack of the inchmen is, perhaps, my favorite scene in this section. These Torque born monsters do a number on the foraging party. Pomeroy is killed, and Judah experiences moments of weakness. Indeed, Cutter’s point of view is very well done. The fear and terror is palpable.
The reason, of course, why Judah is weakened is because the Militia have begun tripping his golem traps. They won’t stop the Militia, but those creatures should delay them for a while.
As Iron Council rolls towards New Crobuzon, refugees from the city begin appearing. They tell of the Collective and its conflict with the government. Of the freedom spirals that have become symbols of the revolution. However, Quarbin interjects himself.
The spirals are not freedom signs. They are a summoning, a marker for a murderspirit, an entity that will destroy New Crobuzon. And Spiral Jacobs is revealed as the tramp ambassador of Tesh.
This raises an interesting question, though. Why are the Tesh wanting to destroy New Crobuzon? What benefit is it to them? Or is it they are desirous of a quick end to the war (much like New Crobuzon appears to be)? What ever the reason, the stage is set for a confrontation.
Next time, Judah Low vs. Spiral Jacobs in “The Remaking.”
Set a mournful funeral march, get ready for eulogizing. Ding dong, the witch is dead. So long Eliza Stem-Fulcher.
“The Caucus Race” drives home what I have been saying about Ori for a while. Toro’s Gang targeted the Mayor of New Crobuzon for assassination, or did they? Eliza Stem-Fulcher, last seen in Perdido Street Station as Mayor Rudgutter’s Home Secretary, has become Mayor in her own right (and seems to have been in the position for a number of years- maybe a decade). While Stem-Fulcher does get assassinated at the end of this section, she was not the target.
The truth of Toro’s Gang is revealed, and also Ori’s self delusions of what he is doing. There is a distinction between terrorists and revolutionaries, although a thin one. Terrorists are aiming to cause fear and panic in their opponents and are more apt to commit atrocities when it furthers their cause. Revolutionaries can be just as ruthless, but terror is not their method, rather it is achievable goals. The line is ever so murky, however.
Ori is a revolutionary, he wants to act to bring about a new New Crobuzon. But he is unwilling, squeamish even, when it comes to killing, especially when it comes down to the innocent. The old couple for example. He is okay with their deaths when he thought them Militia, but when he realizes that they are innocents, their only crime being owning the house adjoining Magister Legus’s, he is not okay with it, despite him rationalizing it. This event sours him on Toro and the gang although he still contributes.
But this is only a part of the shattering of Ori’s illusions. He believes that the purpose of the gang is to free New Crobuzon, to make it a better, more just place to live. But the truth is very different. Toro’s true intentions have always been to kill the Magister who ordered her Remaking. Toro, like Stem-Fulcher, is a returning character. Derkhan mentions going to the trial of a woman who accidentally smothered her child. That mother is Toro. And the Magister who so happened to order her Remaking just happens to be Stem-Fulcher’s lover.
This revelation completely breaks Ori’s constructed view of the gang, its purpose, and what he is doing. He is thrown out and becomes more of a detached observer. He is not as present as he was.
In a way, Ori becomes both an observer and protagonist. As a character, he really only comes alive when he is dealing with Spiral Jacobs. There is something about their interactions, the stalking curiosity that breaths life into Ori’s sections. However, Ori is also just an observer when it comes to the new face of New Crobuzon, the Commune- wait, the Collective.
The funny thing is that Ori’s (and Toro’s Gang’s) action do not contribute at all to the “awakening.” The assassination of Stem-Fulcher honestly has nothing to do with the revolution. He keeps talking about “waking the city up” when it is actually him who has been asleep.
Moving back to Spiral Jacobs, the power he exerts on Ori is similar to that of Judah Low on Cutter. Both are older men who have taught the younger man something. Though there is clearly no sexual component to Ori’s fascination with Jacobs, there is clearly a connection-if only from Ori’s side of it.
The relationship is mediated by the memory of Jack Half-a-Prayer. Jacobs new the famous rebel, and Ori is obsessed with that image of popular rebellion. Part of his blindness as to the event unfolding around him stems from not being able to see that an organized rebellion is coming. He can only see armed struggle as originating from rebel gangs- the FReemade and Toro’s Gang.
Just as there is a new New Crobuzon, so there is a new Toro. The death and abdication of Toro, having accomplished her goal, leads to the new Toro. Ori has been given the bull’s head, the symbol of anarchism. What does he do with it?
Finally, say what you will about Mayor Stem-Fulcher, she did go out with a crowning moment of awesome.
Next time, a harrowing jaunt through the Cacotopos in “The Stain.”
This is the Iron Council? This motley aggregation of pure democracy and metaphoric metal life? How disappointing. Perhaps Mieville was on to something when he did not show the Scar.
The Iron Council is at its root a better metaphor, a better symbol, and a better myth than a reality. This is what utopian socialism equates to: a hard and harsh life, though free. Ann-Hari, the mother of the revolution, become uglied and weathered by that revolution. Transcending the revolution, the loss of her looks, reveals her true power, what draws people to her.
The physical transformation of the Perpetual Train into Iron Council is really interesting. The feral description is very apt. The totemic skulls, the creation of a face from the grill is both inspiring and frightening. The creation of a moving, railed city with its regular trek is an achievement.
But, as Cutter points out, there is a feudal air about Iron Council as well. Is the train not a roaming manor? A castle on the rails? The communities that exist along the track have as much peasantry as proletariat. But the community itself, the majority decision of the people, is the “lord” of this independent fief.
During the course of this section, I agreed with Cutter’s critique of Iron Council. The lack of money, the feudal throwback, etc. I remember reading LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and absolutely detesting Anares (although Urras is little better). Despite my similar politics, I still find a lot of “socialist” literature uninteresting.
Which is why I find Cutter’s self condemnation problematic. What could be an interesting exploration of why Cutter believes what he does is subsumed by the narrator telling that he knows that he himself is wrong.
Moving on to the War, I find it interesting that, in this section, the war seems to be going more in New Crobuzon’s direction. Is the Witchocracy a party to the war? I think it is mentioned earlier in the novel that the Witchocracy and Tesh are allies or closely connected. But it has been a few hundred pages.
What annoys me is that instead of using the broken thassalomach spell to attack its enemies, New Crobuzon is sending an expeditionary force to wipe out Iron Council. Really, does New Crobuzon not have bigger fish to fry at the moment?
But, this section does accomplish its goal, to speed the Iron Council on its way to its final confrontation with New Crobuzon. The Iron Council is going home. First, though, there is the Cacotopic Stain. . .
Next time: Goodbye Eliza Stem-Fulcher in “The Caucus Race.”
We leave the history of Judah Low and the Perpetual Train/ Iron Council behind and return to the New Crobuzon of the present. “The Hainting” is incredibly short and serves mostly to build up tension as the Tesh begin making their moves against New Crobuzon itself and the tensions within the city begin to ratchet up towards a spectacular explosion. And it is a further exploration of Ori’s partly delusional, partly gang mentality.
Part of the interest of Ori’s point of view is his increasing isolation from everything else save his life in Toro’s Gang. He has completely identified himself with the group and no longer can see what is going on outside of that group. It is clear that his complaints about the Caucus not doing anything is increasingly wrong, but he does not see that. The power of agency is slowly shifting from Toro and her gang to a more organized rebellion. It is what Ori wants, and he refuses to see it. Iron Council is coming, and so is the revolution.
But, Toro and her gang are planning something big. Obviously, given the language used, they are targeting the Mayor for assassination. This will destabilize New Crobuzon aplenty. So, does the agency really change or is it more shared, but Ori is too blind, or self involved, to see it.
That Ori is truly self involved is beyond question. He has quickly (too quickly if you ask me) positioned himself as a key member of the gang, largely due to his monetary contributions (donated by Spiral Jacobs, how does that crazy old man have that much money?). It is he who recruits the angry and disaffected Baron to the gang, a man who brings fear to his fellow gang members. Baron is Militia, a hardcore soldier who can kill without remorse, with his eyes open. This raises plenty of questions about Toro’s Gang as all of them have trouble killing, even Militia informants. Is Toro’s Gang as hardcore, as ruthless as they seem to be?
Speaking of Baron, it seems that the war may be going in Tesh’s favor, or at least a stalemate. I still think that Tesh is at the disadvantage, at least at first. The fighting is taking place far closer to Tesh than to New Crobuzon. But, Tesh’s fighting techniques are truly frightening.
New Crobuzon uses a combination of traditional military technologies as well as steam punk science and thaumaturgy. New Crobuzon also uses techniques that the reader would easily recognize, the propaganda of freedom, liberation, and opposition to tyranny (Rudgutter makes the distinction in Perdido Street Station). Despite the strangeness, New Crobuzon is still a weird London.
Tesh is alien. Tesh’s weapons of war all seem to operate on more thaumaturgic principles. Toothbombs? really? Tesh has been described as having strange sciences and thaumaturgies compared to New Crobuzon. And Rudgutter has stated that Tesh is a land ruled by witches. Tesh also uses suicide bombers, using children imbued with hexes to attack the Militia. And then, there are some of the casualties, the Tesh are not nice.
The war is horrible, brutal, nasty, and utterly inhuman on both sides. So, why does the Caucus want New Crobuzon to lose? Well, the same reason that the Bolsheviks profited from Russia’s defeat in both the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. The Russian loss in 1905 severely weakened the power of the government, and World War I utterly obliterated the authority of the Romanovs, allowing the Bolsheviks to take over. New Crobuzon is exhausted, it cannot continue to fight the war in Tesh and deal with a restive population. The war has forced Parliament to begin talking to the unions and less radical dissidents. But a defeat would weaken New Crobuzon to the point of revolution. The Caucus sees a New Crobuzon defeat as a means of either gaining more power or sweeping into power.
At this point in the novel, Tesh is winning the war, managing to outfight New Crobuzon. Indeed, Tesh is described as New Crobuzon’s equal. The leadership seems to be suing for peace, but do not know who to go to. Who do they talk to? The embassy in New Crobuzon is empty, New Crobuzon’s embassy has likely been executed, and communication is almost impossible. Now, there is a problem. In Perdido Street Station, it is stated that Teshi utilize tramp ambassadors. They don’t utilize an embassy, but they utilize the postal service. Why not just send a letter to the Teshi embassy, the ambassador should be able to get it.
Any way, that is it with this section, save to state that the Teshi eye in the sun is an amazing moment, a truly chilling and frightening scene. I am thinking, after I finish Iron Council, of writing at least two or three additional posts: A Defense of New Crobuzon, An Exploration of Tesh, and The Teshi War. Next time, we see what Iron Council has become in “Retread.”
This section of Iron Council is unlike anything seen in the rest of the Bas-Lag novels. The action of the main plot, though separate by geography, is unified roughly by time. But this section, this anamnesis, is more of an insertion, an extended jaunt to Judah Low’s past to see how Judah became Judah and the birth of the Iron Council from a railway strike.
Let’s begin first with the word “anamnesis.” What does it mean? According to Wiktionary, “anamnesis” means remembrance. And that is what this section is, a remembrance of Judah Low’s past and the birth of Iron Council. However, is there a deeper meaning to the usage of the word? Or is Mieville just using an unusual, uncommon word for its strangeness? Perhaps “The Perpetual Train” is in reality an attempt to create a Marxist form of the anamnesis theory from Plato? I do not know.
To be honest, this is my least favorite section of the novel so far. It reads in many ways as a Marxist hagiography, and succeeds only slightly better. It is better than expected, with several powerful moments, but it does seem unnecessary in the larger scheme of the novel itself.
Judah Low is the featured character in this section, his history from a young scout studying the Siltspear to the master of golems is explored. The human side of him is explored, and the messianic/ prophet depiction of him is both confirmed and subverted. Judah Low is generally a passive character, he only reacts to events. And then only if his “goodness” forces him to action. Several times, it is clear that he is not in control of his own actions, that he is operating on an instinctual goodness.
This seems to be a result of the Siltspear elder who touched him, unlocking both his “goodness” as well as his potential for creating golems. Now, the Siltspear are an interesting and amazing species that do not appear for long. Imbued with a strange natural affinity for making golems of amazing forms of matter, the Siltspear are clearly inspired by Native Americans. Though the Siltspear, given their xenian nature, is seemingly incapable of understanding what the coming railroad means for them. That they as a species are doomed to die. Their fate is, perhaps, the most powerful part of the narrative.
The Siltspear are destroyed by the religious, indeed fanatical, belief in the necessity of the transcontinental railroad linking Myrshock, Cobsea, and New Crobuzon. This will open up the interior of Rohagi for New Crobuzon’s trade. And Weather Wrightby is devoted to his vision. This devotion which is also madness.
Iron Council is, in part, a novel of a weird Wild West. And “The Perpetual Train” is heavily inspired by the Wild West. The transcontinental railroad, the boom towns it creates, the wild and lawless atmosphere, infect this part of the novel.
This is best seen in Judah’s relationship with Price How, a great gambler. Price takes Judah on as a butler and sometime bed partner. Their relationship lasts until Price gets into an ever increasing stakes game with an androgynous Maru’ ahm gambler that leads to Judah being placed as a bet. Judah flees and becomes a desperado for a time.
Maru’ahm is an interesting city. The style of government must be chaotic, a casino parliament? But the nature of Maru’ahm society brings in a colorful bunch of aristocrats who love to gamble. Much like the game on the doomed Orbital in Bank’s Consider Phlebas. Given the distance of Maru’ahm from New Crobuzon, the aristocrat gamblers are aliens, something unknown in those parts.
But it is not just Maru’ahm that is interesting. We see a little of what the hinterland of Rohagi is like. While not stated, there seem to be some minor states in the path of the train (with only New Crobuzon, Myrshock, and Cobsea of any power). And it seems clear that the fate of most of those states will be under the heel of New Crobuzon. What I wonder is: how does New Crobuzon control its extended territory? Does it utilize the Militia or local collaborators who enforce the metropolis’s will? Or is it more along the lines of fealty and tribute rather than direct control? Given the high political position of capitalists in the city, I would not be surprised if the control is not more economic with the threat of Militia force.
With the strike, rebellion, and formation of the Iron Council, it is shown that New Crobuzon can field a Militia force some distance away from the city, although it appears to be a rather small, but highly trained force. And I think that is the power of the Militia, they are hidden, highly trained, and more advanced than their opponents, whether internal or external.
The formation of the Iron Council is an absolutely amazing moment in the novel, a scene of true power. And it does illustrate the problems inherent in collectivist actions. Who is incharge? Is it permissible to circumvent the will of the group? Who decides what? All of these challenges are well displayed.
The de facto leader (though she would deny that) is Ann-Hari, the leader of the prostitutes. From her first introduction, she is a dynamic force for change, possessed of a drive for the rails and for a new way of life, a new way of being. While Judah is the erstwhile protagonist of the section, Ann-Hari is the far more interesting character.
That’s all I have for this section. Next time, we return to Ori in “The Hainting.”
This part of Iron Council returns the reader to Cutter, Judah, and the others. This part is a continuation of the quest to find the Iron Council (the physical entity in the novel). This part is pretty good, but also frustrating.
Personally, I’m not buying Iron Council. I get that it is one of the few successful instances of defiance at New Crobuzon’s authority that is in the public imagination (as no one seems to remember Isaac and Derkhan’s fundamental role in ending the Plague of Nightmares). I also get that Iron Council has become metaphor, myth. A myth of socialist (or collectivist) success against the destructive capitalism of New Crobuzon, a myth and reality that New Crobuzon wants to destroy. But Iron Council as paramount image is too thick, to jammed into the consciousness of the reader.
My issue with this part is: what is New Crobuzon after in this section, prosecuting the war with Tesh or tracking down and destroying Iron Council? Judah, who honestly is obsessed with Iron Council, seems to think that all rails lead to Iron Council. But, I think it is equally likely that the Militia units encountered in this section are dedicated to hurting Tesh.
As stated in the text, New Crobuzon cannot attack Tesh itself yet. But that does not mean that New Crobuzon cannot attack Tesh’s economy. And that is why New Crobuzon is attacking the Galaggi wineherders (the Wine Land of the title). The wine of Galaggi (produced in one imaginative assed way) passes through Tesh markets to get to other markets (including New Crobuzon). And Tesh, as far as the reader knows, is not doing much about it.
During my first reading, I had assumed that Tesh and New Crobuzon were stalemated. Both sides not having a clear advantage. But now, I’m thinking that New Crobuzon is at the advantage, on the offensive, winning the war. Why? New Crobuzon is stated to have an outpost near Tesh, Tesh’s economic interests are threatened, and there is no mention of the Grain Spiral (the equivalent of Galaggi for New Crobuzon) being attacked by Tesh. The Militia is closer to Tesh itself, and New Crobuzon nor its near interests have come under attack. That is to change, but that is a topic for another time.
Speaking of the war, I had mentioned that I saw the Boer War as an inspiration, and I still see that. The Militia’s treatment of civilians and those not directly linked to Tesh or her war aims is just horrific. People are being massacred for the sheer hell of it. Even the cute bug people! But the description of necklaces of ears brings to mind (as an American) the Vietnam War. However, I think that the Boer War is more likely to have been on Mieville’s mind.
Moving away from the War, I do want to talk about Cutter and Quarbin. Starting with Quarbin.
Quarbin is a Tesh monk, a devote of the Hidden. As a price of devotion Quarbin has lost the knowledge of gender. The image of her/ his genitals are obscured to him/ her. This is a really fascinating aspect of the character. Gradually, Quarbin begins to loose the self she/ he has developed. First gender, then, to find Iron Council, language. Language is that which binds an individual to the community, to the nation. In loosing the language of Tesh, Quarbin no longer is Teshi. She or he is without nation, without place. And I think that Iron Council offers a chance for a new community as well as (as Cutter thinks) a way to die, to fade away. I also think that Quarbin does this to purposely break any loyalty for Tesh. Tesh forsakes the monastery to New Crobuzon, so Tesh can go to hell. Later on, I will have a problem with this.
Cutter is my favorite character in the novel (save for Spiral Jacobs). He is so very human and well characterized. His presence in the novel is conditional. Had things been different, he might not be involved. Hell, he may have a completely different politics than the Cutter of the novel. Indeed, this is where Mieville shines. As with Bellis, Cutter’s character is interesting, not for his opposition to New Crobuzon’s government, but for who the character is. Mind you, I may be biased as Cutter is a gay man.
The reason that Cutter comes to find Judah is because Cutter is in love with Judah. The relationship is fraught with class. For Judah, sex and love are not important. Indeed, Cutter is starved for sex with him, and when they do have sex, it seems to be perfunctory and cajoled.The relationship seems to be as much, if not more, about education and patrician friendship as it is about love and sex. They are not in an exclusive relationship, Judah is bisexual and Cutter has had several lovers. Including one of the wineherders.
Now, what fascinates me about Cutter is the story of the Militiaman. Had things been different, had Cutter and the nameless man met each other again (likely before Judah) would Cutter have the same politics? It is hard to tell. But given what is known about Cutter’s relationship with Judah, the passion and frustration/ rage, I wonder if Cutter might be better off with the other man.
This brings into question homosexuality in New Crobuzon. Like in Victorian London, homosexuality is criminalized (at least for humans). It is never quite explained why, but likely to be a religious prohibition. The gay subculture of New Crobuzon is very similar to that of Victorian London. There are the cultured aesthetes, those like Oscar Wilde, and there are the working men, those more like Cutter himself. Cutter prefers men similar to him in one night stands, but Judah is so alien, so different, that Cutter fell in love, hard. I also find Elsie and Pomeroy’s reactions to be well done. A traditionalist Marxist take on homosexuality is historically displayed. For the Caucus, as with early socialists, homosexuality is a “social ill” created by the capitalist corruption of New Crobuzon. This is, of course, bullshit, and Cutter refuses to be apologetic about who he is. And that is why I like him so much.
Damn, this is a long post. Next time: the long interlude of The Perpetual Train.