Evan Leach's Reviews > The City & the City

The City & the City by China Miéville
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Nov 14, 12

bookshelves: 2000-2009, fantasy, mystery, hugo-nominees, hugo-winners, english-literature, novels
Read from November 01 to 06, 2012

Most of China Miéville’s books have a couple of mind-bending ideas in them, and The City & the City is no different. Besźel and Ul Qoma are two different cities…kind of. While the two cities are distinct, they share much of the same physical geography. Some areas are pure Besźel, others are pure Ul Qoma, and in others the two cities overlap. In these ‘crosshatched’ areas, citizens are forbidden from interacting with the other city in any way, or even from perceiving what is going on across the invisible border. Think of the twin cities as some sort of surreal Venn diagram (albeit a super complicated one).

img: Venn Diagram

Exactly how the two cities merged (or grew apart) in this way is a mystery. But a shadowy organization known as Breach oversees the whole operation, making sure that citizens respect the borders between the cities. Just looking someone in the eye is a serious offense if that person is across the border, even if physically you are only a few feet apart. It’s a pretty crazy conceit, but a cool one and Miéville has a lot of fun playing with the environment he’s created.

Crazy setting aside, The City & the City is a pretty simple detective story. Apparently Miéville’s mother was a big mystery fan, and this book is kind of China’s way of paying homage to the genre. The plot is pretty standard potboiler fare. A dead body is found in Besźel, and our hero has to crack the case with the help of some loyal sidekicks who aren’t afraid to bend the rules. It’s not the kind of crazy, roller coaster ride of a plot that Miéville uncorked in Perdido Street Station or The Scar, but it’s a well paced story and China tells it well. Even if the characters fit within familiar archtypes, they still feel like individuals. This isn’t the kind of whodunit where the reader can follow along and play ‘catch the killer’ with the protaganist (at least I couldn’t), but there are some good twists and turns.

Overall, I enjoyed the story (particularly the third act) and the characters, but based on these elements alone I’d probably rate this a 3.5 star read. The sheer coolness of the setting really enhanced my enjoyment of the book though, enough to bump this up into four star territory. Readers expecting more typical fantasy fare may be disappointed by The City & the City: this is definitely a mystery story with a sprinkling of fantastic elements, and not the other way around. But if you like your fiction on the weird side, this book is a lot of fun. 4 stars, recommended!
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