Thursday, May 6, 2010

Book Review: The City and the City [2009]

China Miéville's The City and the City came recommended by various trusted sources, not least of which was @jmgold, but it took me a wickedly long time to get around to it. It was ultimately worth the wait, even though I know I will struggle here to describe the setting, in particular. So please bear with me.

I've never read anything by Miéville before, so I'm not sure if everything he writes is this . . . way. The City and the City is a "what if" novel, in which a concept is taken to its extreme and then just a little further. I suppose you could call it science fiction, but the book could have a sort of uneasy home in several genres. In many ways it reads as a simple hard-boiled detective story, in which seasoned policeman Tyador Borlú tries to solve the mystery of who killed a young foreign woman. What makes it unique is its setting, the dual cities/countries of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are distinct, yet occupy the same physical space. Residents of the two cities carefully "un-see" each other and adopt mannerisms, styles of dress, and language that make it easier to distinguish which city a person is "in" at a given moment. To violate this careful separation is to be subjected to the frightening and sometimes violent intervention of a force known as Breach.

As the novel begins, the Besź police are attempting to discover the killer of an unidentified female who turns out to have been an archaeology student in the neighboring city of Ul Qoma. In the course of his investigation, Borlú finds that the girl was a well-known believer in the legend of Orciny, the "Third City" that supposedly exists between the cities. Having angered both nationalists (those who believe that there should be only one city, theirs) and unificationists (those who believe that there is only one city) alike, she had her enemies, but it nevertheless remains unclear why she was killed until Borlú makes a cross-border expedition to Ul Qoma. The details of the crime unfold against the two intertwined cities, with the possibility of Orciny and the reality of Breach both lurking menacingly.

The intricate negotiation between the cities, the mystery of Orciny, and the exploration of the concepts of "foreignness" and "other," make a fascinating background/foreground to the solidly familiar crime-solving aspects (including the foul-mouthed partner, sifting through evidence, questioning people [sometimes with more force than necessary], chasing people through the streets, etc.). The City and the City repeatedly provokes thought as Miéville creates an unforgettable and fully-realized urban landscape (or two).

Grade: A-

I totally figured out the mystery, yay me! This was another book I listened to on CD, because I knew I would never get around to it otherwise, but I'm not sure I would recommend that as the best way to consume it. On the one hand, the narrator's dreamy accent made it easy to fall into the book's European setting. On the other . . . there are a lot of things that have interesting spellings in the book, and I wouldn't have known how to type them here if I didn't also have a hard copy. So, once again, I must recommend having both on hand.

Michael Moorcock's review for The Guardian. He says it all much better than I have.

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