Melissa McShane's Reviews > The City & the City

The City & the City by China Miéville
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's review
Mar 05, 2012

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bookshelves: alternate-history, fantasy, detective-stories, mystery, modern-setting-fantasy
Read in March, 2012 , read count: 1

This is a beautifully-written fantasy/mystery/detective story set in an unusual and fascinating world, and if I were rating books based on literary quality instead of personal preference, I'd have given it 4.5 stars.

Tyador Borlu (I can't recreate the accent marks here, but think Hungarian/Slovakian and you'll be close) is a police detective in the city of Besz, somewhere at the eastern edge of Europe. He's called in to investigate the murder of an unknown woman, but the routine investigation becomes complicated when he receives an anonymous tip from someone who should never have called him, whose tip Borlu can't even follow up on without risking his job and possibly his life. This is because Besz is no ordinary city; it's intertwined with another city called Ul Qoma, literally intertwined, with streets and even buildings side-by-side with those of Besz. A citizen of Besz might have to detour half a mile around Ul Qoman territory to reach a cafe only twenty feet away ("grosstopical" feet, in Mieville's words). They learn from an early age to "unsee" things and people in the wrong city, to avoid while pretending to be unaware of what they're avoiding. These rules are enforced by the mysterious people/entities known as Breach, who take away those who are seen to break the rules. Borlu's informant is in Ul Qoma. The missing persons flyers about the murdered woman are in Besz. If Borlu uses this information to solve the case, it could cost him everything.

I'd never read anything by China Mieville (again with the no diacriticals), but I've heard a lot about his books, and The City and the City lived up to the glowing praise. I particularly liked the dialogue--it's natural-sounding, including the sorts of pauses and half-sentences real people use, without being hard to follow. It's also a good mystery, with reverses and dead ends and false leads. The first "solution" was the one I thought was obvious, so I was glad it didn't turn out to be true; I hate it when a mystery is so obvious you spend half the book yelling at the idiot detective who can't figure it out.

Of course, the intertwined cities are what make the story so unique. The truth about how Besz and Ul Qoma are connected doesn't come out right away, but Mieville doesn't drag it out to the point of frustration. Each new fact changed my perception of what was going on; I started thinking Ul Qoma was a ghost-city, then a parallel dimension, and that drew me in because I was actually engaged in thinking out how such a situation could have developed, or be maintained. Mieville makes the idea of two cities separated only by what amounts to mass denial plausible.

But this is also where I stopped being able to believe it. Despite this well-thought-out system, there's no reason given for it to happen. No one knows how or why the city and the city were created; it's a thousand years in the past--but why do they have to stay separate? Why is Breach so insistent on keeping it that way? If there's a reason given in the story, I must have missed it, but I don't think there is. I would even have been satisfied with "We don't know why, but a thousand years of tradition is hard to overcome, so we don't bother." Maybe the subplot of the opposing but minority factions--one calling for the two cities to join, another wanting one city to take over the other--is supposed to represent the impossibility of ending the stalemate. It's clear that there's no political or metaphysical reason to keep them apart, and in the end, the villain exploits the separation of the cities to very nearly escape. So as interesting and intellectually engaging as the book is, ultimately I couldn't love it, but I will definitely be reading more of Mieville's books in the future.
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