If, say, Jonathan Franzen had written Harry Potter, this would be the result. A fantasy novel for disaffected former/current nerds in their 20s. A dra...moreIf, say, Jonathan Franzen had written Harry Potter, this would be the result. A fantasy novel for disaffected former/current nerds in their 20s. A dragonbook, sans embarrassing cover featuring a busty wench writhing in the presence of a fiery beast - you can read this on a subway without people judging you! Yet this undercurrent of painstaking self-consciousness kind of ruins the point of a fantasy novel.
I was initially attracted by the premise of a realistic fantasy novel with a bit of snark, but, especially in the second half, it loses its charm. There just isn't quite enough...magic in this book about magic, if that makes any sense at all? A little too much existential brooding and quarter-life crisis-moping, not enough flights of fancy to indulge the type of reader whom this book would appeal to in the first place.
Criticism aside, I did think the author did a pretty skillful job with scenes in which painful reality collides with the magical fantasy world. (the Beast in the classroom scene haunted me for a few days!)(less)
This was a fun, fast read! I expected it to be a bit dated, given that it is a cyberpunk novel that came out in what was functionally the Bronze Age o...moreThis was a fun, fast read! I expected it to be a bit dated, given that it is a cyberpunk novel that came out in what was functionally the Bronze Age of the internet and all, but surprisingly it held up pretty well in most cases.
But the incredible, frenetic pace of the action scenes was bogged down by several scenes in which the characters would expound, at length, about Sumerian / Christian mythology blending with technology and viruses and blah, blah, blah...in smaller doses it would have added intellectual depth to the novel, but there were too many scenes of characters conversing just for the purpose of exposition and nothing else. Another thing that bugged was the name of the "Da5id" character - how do you pronounce that?! Why not just call him either "David" or "5." How effing annoying would that be to have to say his name out loud?
Minor cavils notwithstanding, the first and last part of the novel (the "bread" if you will) are really entertaining. (less)
Spoiler-ish? In the sense that it took awhile into the novel for me to catch on to the main conceit of the novel, and other readers might be the same...moreSpoiler-ish? In the sense that it took awhile into the novel for me to catch on to the main conceit of the novel, and other readers might be the same way. (If you're not finished with the book, then go out and read it and come back here when you're done. It's only 300 pages! That's like a Vanity Fair and a half.)
The main conceit of the novel is that two cities exist within the same physical space. Mieville is deliberately vague about the mechanics of how the two cities came to occupy the same space, so that readers can choose to interpret how they will. Is magic involved? Or does this version of the Berlin Wall exist entirely in the heads of the citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma? How the separation happened isn't as important as how it is maintained - although I, like a lot of readers apparently, really want to know. I wish the novel came with a map, or some drawings.
The plot itself is just a standard detective noir novel, with your requisite red herrings and such. I found myself not caring much about the actual detective-ing. If you're coming to this book craving a great crime / mystery type novel, then you'll be in for disappointment. If possible, I would have docked half a star because the plot seemed a bit paint-by-numbers, and the resolution was mildly disappointing - if it were a standard crime novel, that is.
But it's not, and that's ultimately why I gave it 5 stars, and why the book won't leave my head. More thrilling to me were the detailed glimpses into what life in a fractured city would be like. Scenes like one in which the main character, Inspector Borlu, finds himself tracking a suspect in the 'other city,' and since it is illegal for him to 'see' the suspect or even the street upon which the suspect is walking, he has to perform an intricate balancing act. Or quirky, briefly mentioned reminiscences - citizens of one city having to ignore and step over couples having sex in a massive hippie protest in the other city. This all sounds totally bizarre, and yet somehow Mieville incorporates enough familiar details from our world to make this setup kinda sorta plausible.
It's kept me mulling over the question of what makes a city. How do city borders come into being, and what keeps these borders intact? On its face, the situation seems absurd - how could even the most dedicated secret police stop some kid from kicking a ball across the street to the other city? How could they get so many people to just actively ignore half the city they see in front of them? Yet, like other reviewers have pointed out, we have cities like these all over America - see Washington, D.C., Baltimore, St. Louis, etc - wherein different socioeconomic and ethnic groups can live their entire lives in the same city, always "unseeing" each other.
I still have tons of questions about the reality of how it would be to live in Beszel/Ul Qoma. What about people who suck at navigating and reading maps? (e.g. myself?) Were the cities closed off to all foreigners in the aftermath of the Cleavage, to give the citizens time to develop this reflexive "seeing" and "unseeing" (as well as a healthy fear of Breach)? Mahalia's method of smuggling - surely loads of people have done precisely this in the history of Beszel/Ul Qoma. How can Breach possibly catch them all? How are resources distributed between the two cities? The book only seems to mention the fact that most valuable archaeological artifacts happen to be on the Ul Qoma side, vs. the Beszel side, but surely other resource issues have had to come up in the thousand years of existence. How does [i]plumbing[/i] work? So many questions!(less)
A heartbreaking look into the inner lives of several North Korean defectors. I'm a bit of a "North Korea nerd," if such a thing exists, and I've read...moreA heartbreaking look into the inner lives of several North Korean defectors. I'm a bit of a "North Korea nerd," if such a thing exists, and I've read other materials on North Korea including the deeply excellent and thoroughly researched work by Bradley K. Martin (which is referenced extensively here by Barbara Demick). So factually, I didn't learn much about life in the regime that I didn't already know from other sources: I knew about the labor camps, the "three generations" rule of punishment, the horrible conditions during the height of the famine, etc. Everyone knows that North Koreans have a pretty rough standard of living - probably even the most fervently patriotic DPRK citizens have realized this by now.
What Demick does here is to take the testimonies of these defectors, and build them into a compelling and affective narrative. Most other defector testimonies I've read tend to exclusively dwell on the extraordinarily awful aspects of life in North Korea. To be sure, Demick does not gloss over these. But the accounts here also incorporate the ordinary, the mundane, the humorous and sweet moments in the defectors' lives. It's the first account I've read that treats them people as people, not just hapless victims of a brutal artifact of the Cold War. They fall in love, argue with each other, gaze at a sky full of stars (and there are many of them, since there's none of the light pollution that hazes the sky to the South), dream of steak and wine dinners even as they cautiously ration bowls of thin gruel made with leaves. This book actually left me angrier at Kim Jong Il and his regime than reading the lengthy rap sheet on North Korea at the Human Rights Watch website. I found myself truly invested in the fates of everyone in the book: the fiery spirited Mi-ran, and the plucky and resourceful Mrs. Song were my favorites. I rooted hard for all of them to escape with their lives and sanity.
I'd love to read more on how the defectors are adjusting to life in South Korea. To go from extreme deprivation and limited movement, the drab grays of North Korea, to the absolute chaos, color and superficiality of the South? Unfortunately it seems that life is still hard for these refugees, in different ways. Hope Demick follows up with these people in, say, ten years or so. (less)