Iron Council follows three major narrative threads that eventually meet by the novel’s climax. Although Miéville weaves back and forth between narrative, time, and space, this summary will follow each narrative individually, discussing their relation to each other toward the end. The novel is set in and around New Crobuzon, a sprawling London-esque city. New Crobuzon has for some unknown amount of time been at war with Tesh, and is attempting to build a railroad across the outlying desert, partially as a new means of conducting this war. Against this backdrop, the novel follows the deeds of three main characters–-Ori, Cutter, and Judah Low.
Judah’s story begins some twenty years before the novel’s opening. Judah was hired as a railroad scout for New Crobuzon, charged with mapping terrain, and informing the land’s inhabitants of the railroad’s coming. While doing so, Judah spends time with the Stiltspear, a race of indescribable creatures who can disguise themselves as trees and conjure golems, living creatures made from unliving matter. Judah attempts to warn the Stiltspear away, but they won’t listen and he must settle for making a few recordings and beginning to learn their golemetric arts. Eventually, he returns to the railroad, which does indeed wipe out the Stiltspear. Shortly afterward, Judah, a prostitute named Ann-Hari, and a Remade named Uzman lead a revolution in which the rail workers drive the overseers away, free the Remade, and hijack the train, transforming it into a moving socialist dwelling.
Iron Council, the perpetual train, moves through the desert, gathering track from behind and laying it in whichever direction its citizens decide. The Council keeps moving to avoid the New Crobuzon militia, who are anxious to reclaim the train and destroy the rebellion-inspiring Council. Judah returns to New Crobuzon, where he immerses himself in esoteric golemetry literature, emerging as a master of the art. Eventually, Judah returns to the Iron Council, having spread its word throughout New Crobuzon, and intent on using his golemetry to protect it.
Cutter, whom the reader joins at the novel’s opening, was a friend, disciple, and lover to Judah during Judah’s return to New Crobuzon. Cutter leads a group consisting of other disciples of Judah in search of the Iron Council, to warn of the impending attack of the New Crobuzon militia. Although the militia was initially defeated by Iron Council, it has amassed a force now capable of destroying the “perpetual train.” After living and working with the Council for a while, Cutter returns with Judah and others to New Crobuzon to inspire revolt with the news of Iron Council, which has decided to return to the city and confront the militia on its own turf. After learning of the failed uprising by the Collective, Judah sends Cutter back to dissuade the citizens of the Council from returning. He is unsuccessful, and at the novel’s climax, Judah conjures a time-golem to freeze the train in time, thus saving it at the point of attack from destruction by the militia. As the novel ends, Iron Council has become a public monument of sorts, poised on the verge of attacking New Crobuzon’s exterior until the undisclosed time in which Judah’s time golem will dissipate. Judah is murdered by Ann Hari for halting the Council’s attack, and Cutter re-immerses himself in New Crobuzon’s underground resistance movements, revitalizing the protest publication Runagate Rampant.
Happening somewhat simultaneously with most of the preceding summary are the deeds of Ori, a dissatisfied revolutionary who cannot abide the endless talk of his fellow Runagaters (so named for the above-mentioned publication). Seeking action, Ori is led by Spiral Jacobs, a half-crazed homeless old man, to join the militant gang of Toro. Committing robberies, raids, and even murder, Toro’s group proceeds mercilessly on its quest to assassinate the mayor of New Crobuzon, a plan which is later revealed to be personal rather than political. During Ori’s struggles with and against his new gang, an uprising by The Collective, a union of revolutionary groups, threatens to finally wrest New Crobuzon from the hands of its corrupt parliament and militia. After several days of fighting, however, the Collective is destroyed. Shortly after the fall of the Collective, Ori learns that Spiral Jacobs is in actuality a powerful sorcerer (A Tramp-Ambassador alluded to very briefly early in the novel) sent from Tesh to introduce a dark, destructive force into the midst of New Crobuzon. Here Judah, Ori, and Cutter finally cross paths as they unite to stop Spiral Jacobs, which they finally manage with the help of Qurabin, a disciple of a Teshi religious tradition whom Cutter and Judah met on the journey to Iron Council. Ori is killed in the confrontation. Cutter and Judah then leave to rejoin the thread of the Iron Council, depicted above.