The City and the City by China Mieville
A Recommended Book of the Month
China Mieville has for quite some time now been one of the best science fiction writers that this country has produced. His books are intelligent, highly original and very different from most of what’s currently available in the science fiction and fantasy market. He is a multi award winning author, the World and British Fantasy awards and the Arthur C. Clarke award (which he has won three times) to name a few. He also writes highly respected non-fiction about Marxism, clearly a clever chap. So it was with some anticipation that I picked up The City and the City.
The story is set in two cities unlike any other. Somewhere on the edge of Eastern Europe, lies the city of Beszel; intertwined with it is the city of Ul Qoma. They are separate countries even though their dark and twisted streets interlink with each other and buildings can be both part of Beszel and Ul Qoma at the same time. The citizens of both countries have been trained to unsee each other and to pretend that for the most part the other city doesn’t exist; they are foreigners even if they live next door. Rules are strict in Mieville’s cities; laws are enforced by not only the respective police forces but by a shadowy force known as the Breech. People can be disappeared for just looking at the other city.
It is an interesting concept and Mieville manages to create distinctive differences between the two metropolises. Beszel is a rather downtrodden, technologically backward country where precious investment from the U.S.A. is seen as the future, whereas Ul Qoma is on the rise, new apartment blocks and trendy modern art museums are abound, they are rich in culture as well. Archaeologists travel from around the world to study the artefacts that lie in Ul Qoma soil, evidence that something was there before the two cities split.
It is in the odd world that the story unfolds, a woman is found dead in crumbling Beszel and Inspector Borlu of the Extreme Crimes Division must find out why she was murdered. What begins as a routine case quickly unravels into something far stranger and deadly, Borlu must travel to Ul Qoma and discover the truth, not only of what happened to the victim but of what lies between the city and the city.
The book works simply as a crime novel but it is far more than that, Mieville has created a world so rich in detail and depth that you get lost within Beszel and Ul Qoma very quickly. He creates complex and vivid characters, full of back story, politics and heartbreak. Inspector Borlu, has that crumpled, seen it all before feel of Kurt Wallander or Inspector Frost. A good cop just trying to see that the murdered woman gets what she deserves. Maybe that sounds a little bit clichéd and in the hands of a lesser writer it might be, but Mieville’s characters are very subtle and layered. Borlu comes to the fore as the events in the novel spin out of control and he is forced to question the very identity of both cities and the way of life he has lead for so many years. Much is said about Mieville’s intelligence and yes, the comparisons to Kafka and to a certain extent Orwell are justified. They are writers who used politics and fables to comment on the world in which they lived and The City and The City says much about the West’s view of Eastern Europe, and its people. But he can also write at a blistering pace, much of the best parts of the novel are not held within the discussions of the social and political environments within the cities but the car chases, gun fights and good old fashioned sleuthing that is present within all great crime stories.
And yes, this is a great story. Mieville has delivered and lived up to the hype generated by his early work, in particular the Bas-Lag series. While this is a vastly different book to that epic series, there is no change in quality.
I was pleasantly surprised by the latest from China Mieville. For a while anyway. I was about 50 pages in when I realized it was all grown up. No gun-slinging cacti, or flying birds with no wings. Just people. Full blooded three dimensional people filling up the City of Beszel. Or was it Ul Qoma? It seems through an incident referred to as “The Cleaving”, the city became two cities. But not in the usual way. Somehow they became two cities on top of each other. They physically take up the same space and time, but are not truly in the same location. For example, the fashions, the language, the cars, and the food are all different. Confused yet? Maybe this will help:
“If someone needed to go to a house physically next door to their own but in the neighbouring city, it was in a different road in an unfriendly power. That is what foreigners rarely understand. A Besz dweller cannot walk a few paces next door into an alter house without breach.
But pass through Copula Hall and she or he might leave Beszel, and at the end of the hall come back exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, a tourist, a marvelling visitor, to a street that shared the latitude-longitude of their own address, a street that they had never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen, to the Ul Qoman house sitting next to and a whole city away from their own building, invisible there now they had come through, all the way across the Breach, back home.”
The City and the City
So in a nutshell, if you are in Ul Qoma, you would have to make an international call to your next door neighbour in Beszel that you would have to “unsee” all day since they lived in another country. And if you did the unthinkable and wave a friendly “Good Morning” to that neighbour you would invoke “Breach” and disappear. Oh yes, there is a mysterious power known as “Breach” in the cities that no citizen dares cross.
Overall I found this to be an extremely well crafted novel, with a fully realized story. China’s style and love of language again made me marvel and long for more. All I could truly wish for was less philosophy and more clarity. I found myself rereading passages over again trying to understand the rules of “unseeing” and “Breach” to no true satisfaction.
Strangely enough, I had thought changing the scene from the New Crobuzon world to our own would give China more of a personal identity. Unfortunately for me it made him feel even more like Neil Gaimen’s little brother.
Have you read The City and the City?
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The City and the City reader reviews
Alex from UK
Confused, untidy, incoherent, and laboured - to me a mess of a book and a story that had potential but was left to sprawl. Where was the wise editing?
Nikitas from London
I'm just finishing the book today. I have only of handful of pages to go and I'm done. I had read so many good reviews and I was looking forward to reading it, however, I have to say that I was disappointed. I don't get this book. Yes, the idea of the cities co existing like that is very interesting and placing a murder scene in one of them makes the story even nicer at the beginning. However, it all goes downhill after that. There are so many loose ends, especially when it comes to solving the murder case itself! The main protagonist is not given a proper background story, doesn’t evolve and only some various names of relationships are mentioned but not explained. He also appears to have epiphanies from time to time and comes up with brilliant ideas from finding missing people to the murderers themselves! The way the story was presented appeared to me without coherence and some explanations are not given or when given are not properly explained! Compared to other murder books, this one lacks tremendously.
Sharon from US
One of the best newer writers in any genre today.
Allan from Bridgend
Whilst I agree with the above I feel this is easily a nine out of ten book for me. I understand it is a subjective and personal thing but it is not a 7.8 book....
7.2/10 from 5 reviews
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