Novel Review – The City and The City

It is not considered breach to click on the picture and buy the book.

Written by China Miéville

From the Flap: When a murdered woman is found in the city of Besźel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad.  But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.
    Borlu must travel from the decaying Besźel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own.  This is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen.  His destination is Besźel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma.

Opening Line: “I could not see the street or much of the estate.”

This is the first novel by Miéville that I have read and I think I have found a new author to adore.  The City and The City is an amazing novel that is so intricate in its plotting and conception that it is hard to know where to begin to describe it, nor is it easy to stop thinking about it after finishing it.

On the surface, The City and The City is a straightforward murder mystery, straight out of a noir film.  Tyador Borlú narrates his investigation with the matter-of-fact description one might expect of a noir detective in a post-Chandler era, although without the sarcasm inherent in Chandler’s Philip Marlow.  However, this investigation becomes complicated due to the geographic, social, and political relationship between Besźel and Ul Qoma.  Simply put, they share the same place.  They are topographically linked.  Miéville is a bit coy about whether these are two cities divided by political boundaries (much like the division of Israeli Jerusalem and Palestinian Jerusalem) or if these are cities existing the same space time, but slightly out of phase from one another. Crossing over from one city to another is illegal except via Copula Hall, which is the legal border cross-point between Besźel and Ul Qoma.  Anyone who crosses illegally is guilty of breach (the action) and investigated by Breach (a shadowy force or organization).  Thus, if the murderer breached in his abduction and murder of the woman, the Besźel police can turn the case over to Breach.  Unfortunately, as evidence comes in, it seems the murderer was quite familiar with the intricate laws governing the crossing between cities.  The murder is straightforward, complicated by the unique bureaucratic situation of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

In many ways, The City and The City could be considered an anti-fantasy.  Miéville hints at the fantastic, but these are always teasing, stopping just short of revealing anything concrete, or sinking back into the mundane outright.  Again, are Besźel and Ul Qoma physically connected, or merely out-of-phase?  Is Breach composed of a mysterious force of mortal men and women or are these human forms avatars of something more fantastic?  And is there a secret third city, existing in the spaces both Besźel and Ul Qoma overlook?  None of these questions has a concrete answer.  It is entirely up to the reader to choose an interpretation, and each interpretation fits.  I can’t tell you how much that impresses me.

He has a doctorate in International Relations and he writes wierd fiction. What's not to like?

Despite being a noir-thriller, The City and The City has some fascinating themes, not least of which is the concept of unseeing. There are places where the two cities crosshatch, places where the boundaries are weak and citizens of each city can see each other and view each city.  However, seeing these things is considered breach.  Citizens of both Besźel and Ul Qoma are trained from a young age to not see one another.  Both cities have their own architectural styles and citizens their own way of dressing, walking, even driving.  These are the cues used to indicate nationality.  These are the cues that tell you who to notice and who not to notice.  Thus, on a thematic level, unseeing is nothing more than ignoring the taboo. On the surface, it seems ridiculous as you try to imagine the citizens of the two cities ignoring friends who may have crossed into the other city, ignoring them because they wear visual identifiers that indicate they are no longer present.  However, each society has the looks, actions, and opinions which are acceptable.  Anything which violates that is the other and the easiest way to maintain the status quo is to unsee and unhear the taboo.  How often do we ignore the homeless or poor because their way of dress or hygiene signals us to disregard them?  How often to we unsee brutal arguments between spouses in public places?  There are many actions that we choose to ignore.  There are many classes that we choose to forget.  Besźel and Ul Qoma are merely exaggerations of natural human tendencies.

Final Verdict: If you like fantastic literature (rather than epic fantasy), you will find plenty to tantalize in this novel.  If you like noir-thrillers, with dangerous cities and conspiracies, you will enjoy this read.  If you love high-concept science fiction, you can’t go wrong either (did I mention that The City and The City won a Hugo?).  So long as you don’t mind pervasive strong language, I recommend this one.

The Power Behind the Powers: “‘Orciny’s the third city.  It’s between the other two.  It’s in the dissensi, disputed zones, places that Besźel thinks are Ul Qoma’s and Ul Qoma Besźel’s.  When the old commune split, it didn’t split into two, it split into three.  Orciny’s the secret city.  It runs things.’”

6 thoughts on “Novel Review – The City and The City

  1. “anti-fantasy”, I love that! and it is as if the characters are in denial that they are in anything other than a police procedural noir. to the characters, this is reality, this is non-fiction. and it was a fun book! Although Mieville’s other stuff is much stranger, do you think you’ll read more of him?

    1. I fully intend to read more! I have a copy of “The Iron Council”, but I may wait and read his other books in order of release. I’m a bit of a nerd and like to read authors in the order they wrote things because I like to see how they progress in style and voice. Sadly, due to other commitments, I may not get to tackle another Mieville book until after Christmas.

  2. Great review! I had never read anything about “The City & The City” that really piqued my interest until this review. I had always assumed I would start with “Kraken” when I got around to trying out Mieville’s books, but I may have to put this horse at the gate instead.

    1. If you want to get a copy of “Kraken”, feel free! Just make sure it is in hardcover so when we add it to the bookshelf it will stand as tall and proud as “The City and The City.”

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