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Summary: The City And The City is a hard-boiled detective novel with a difference. Set in a location that feels very Eastern European in tone, and not far removed from a real place, we follow Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad as he begins investigations into the body of a murdered woman. The very effective spin that Mieville uses, which moves this novel from the crime shelves in the bookstores to the SFF shelves, is that the setting is actually two cities existing in the same location, governed in a sinister fashion by Breach. Borlu lives in Beszel, a grim city with featureless concrete and rattling trams, where the citizens wear few colours. The other city is Ul Qoma, and both cities exist in the same time and space. The citizens of each have learned from a young age to unsee and unsense the people and buildings of the other city. In the event that, say, a citizen of Ul Qoma acknowledges a citizen of Beszel, they are then subject to the jurisdiction of Breach.
"But pass through Copula Hall and she or he might leave Beszel, and at the end of the hall come back to exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, but in another country, a tourist, a marvelling visitor, to a street that shared the latitude-longitude of their own address, a street they had never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen, to the Ul Qoman house sitting next to and a whole city away from their own building, unvisible there now they had come through, all the way across the Breach, back home."
My review: I have a couple of China Mieville books on my shelf already, and confess to never having picked them up so far. Somehow I thought they would be pretentious and wordy, and I could never quite tell which genre something like 'Perdido Street Station' fell under. When I decided to do the Arthur Clark shortlist read, I was both interested in reading my first Mieville book, but also feeling a little dread at the idea of picking up something that seemed so meta and impossibly clever. In fact, I will confess something more: I picked The City And The City up first out of the six to get it over with.
Having set the scene, I can now state categorically that this is one of the most powerful SFF books I have ever read, and is without doubt my top read of 2010 so far. I found it unbelievably accessible (especially considering my unfounded view of Mieville's work); stunningly imaginative and constantly entertaining. I am willing to abuse adjectives at length to convey my extremely high opinion of this book.
So why did I enjoy it so much? This is where the review becomes harder to write. Sometimes you just 'click' with a book and enjoy it thoroughly. This definitely happened. But it was more than that. While I read each page, I felt as though I was reading something important, clever and classic. In fact, I imagine the way I felt reading The City And The City would be the way the first person felt when picking up Dracula or Frankenstein: enjoying the book for what it is (a darn good story) but also conscious that this novel is something special and has the potential to resonate through generations of readers.
The story was tight, well-written, with excellent pacing. Thanks to the rather slight nature of the novel (a mere 312 pages, in my hardback edition), I found that there were no erroneous scenes or indulgently bloated descriptions - everything felt very lean, and helped lend the plot a driving urgency.
I enjoyed the characters. In particular, the first person perspective of Borlu enables us to experience the frustration, the fear and the eventual fall-out of the investigation. His familiarity with the city of Beszel immediately gives Ul Qoma an exotic flavour, giving strength to the concept that these are two very separate places co-existing in the same location. He is ably assisted by a short cast of secondary characters, with their own motivations and foibles. None of these characters felt at all as though they were purely there to drive the story along - all of them felt fully-realised.
The way that Mieville declines to really delve into the back story of his main character is also well-done. It is not necessary for the plot, and therefore we catch only a glimpse, a mere snapshot, into the life of Borlu. This for me was far more effective writing and had more of an impact than if Mieville had lovingly dwelt on events that were in the past and had no relevance at all to the present time.
Beyond all of that, and the exceptionally clear descriptions of the two cities, concept is everything. If this had been a straight-up detective novel, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly, what with the twists and red herrings thrown into the mix as well. Add into that the notion of these two cities co-existing - allowing Mieville to explore issues such as nationalism, patriotism and a 'big brother' entity - and you have a killer novel that delivers on every level.
This will be one of the very rare reviews when I do not strive to find something that I disliked to balance the review. It would be nitpicking for the sake of it, and I'm not sure I could honestly find something that I didn't like enough to discuss it impartially.
Arthur Clark thoughts: When I picked up this book, I didn't know that it was about to pick up the BSFA award, or be nominated for a Hugo, although that has now happened. What I do know is that, even without those two events occurring, I would still be holding this book up as probably the one that should and will win. I am prepared to be swayed as I read the other five books in the shortlist, but I am unsure if any can top the sheer breathtaking imagination of The City and The City. I just hope that I don't find the rest a disappointment!
This review has been posted to Floor to Ceiling Books
China Mieville is one of the new 'breed' of writers in the fantasy genre rather than a fantasy writer who has openly stated his desire to return the genre back from the endless Tolkien clones and insipid teenage goth angst fantasy novels (can't think who he might mean here). He as a person is openly left wing and has stated his preference for the socialist workers party.
Anyway that's about the author and his desire to write fantasy in the manner of the greats of the genre and to create a world where fantasy doesn't mean epic travels or boring tales about elves, dwarves and dragons. The city in the city is a book which is firmly cast in most bookshops as a fantasy novel, in truth it has nothing fantasy about it, this is a novel more in the Raymond Chandler style of a complex dangerous city and a crude murder.
The setting for the murder is a complex one, here is a city split in two, there is Bezel and Ul Qoma. They are rival cities which share the same sapce, they are rival nations and dislike acknowledging the presence of the other. This has led to both inhabitants of the city unseeing the other, so people from Bezel literally don't see the inhabitants of Ul Qoma even when crossing a street where one side is Bezel and the other Ul Qoma. Both cities are somewhere in Eastern Europe, along with the mysterious breach which on both sides of the border cleans up any inadvertent strays from one city to the other. There is also the unspoken belief about a third hidden city called Orcziny, Orcziny or the city in the city is believed by most to be a myth and others to be a fact.
The murder victim turns out to be an American girl who went to Bezel to try and find the hidden city, she also had access to Ul Qoma and the investigating officer Borlu from the Bezel police force is soon drawn into an investigation which starts in Bezel and moves to Ul Qoma. We are soon drawn into a world of dark cities, dirty places and a city which is literally split down the middle yet has separate languages, different clothing and styles and different openness to the outer world.
Borlu is our guide and central character; he's the eyes in which we interact with this strange place, this city split in two with people on both sides deliberately not seeing the other. Where the two cities are defined by the clothing people wear and music they play, where the buildings themselves define which Bezel is and which is Ol Qoma.
Throughout there is plenty of politics, intrigue and a sense of a writer wanting to tell us about a socialist agenda. There is little or nothing about the reason for the split in the city, and how each developed separately from the other without being influenced by their near neighbour.
This is a murder mystery in the style of Raymond Chandler; indeed it is easy half way through to remember that you are reading a murder mystery and not a political thriller. The author introduces the murder in the first few chapters but it takes a backward step for the middle third of the novel which embroils itself in the politics of the more conservative Bezel and the more extrovert Ul Qoma.
Ultimately this is a novel for the true die hard fantasy/gothic/horror genre, it's a complex and challenging read but one which is worth the journey because the reader feels as though he's got to know a strange awkward city somewhere in Eastern Europe.
The City & The City is a murder mystery set in two fictitious cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel, somewhere in present day Europe. The strange thing about the two cities is that, geographically, they occupy the same space. They are two overlapping cities, with some streets, buildings, parks and squares that belong specifically belong to one city, and some areas that 'crosshatch', or overlap. The cities have two distinct identities, with different architectural styles, different kinds of food, different vehicles and separate police forces. Citizens can by identified by visual signals such as the style of clothes they wear, their body language and facial characteristics. They also speak two different languages.
What complicates things even further, is that people can be legally only in one city at a time, and must not step over into the other city without passing through Copula Hall, a kind of passport control. Then they must wear a visitor's badge to identify which city they now occupy.
Anyone who transgresses the rules and steps over a boundary or acknowledges the other city in any way is in breach, and the mysterious and terrifying Breach force will appear, apparently from nowhere, and whisk them away. This is tricky in the overlapping areas where people will pass people from the other city in the street, but the law is that they must 'unsee' people from the other city and must only see the ones that occupy their own city. They must also 'unsee' the buildings and vehicles of the other city, and 'unhear' the sounds.
Inspector Tyador Borlu works for the Extreme Crime Squad in Beszel. He is called out to investigate the murder of a young woman, but things become complicated when the facts of the case begin to suggest that she was murdered in Ul Qoma and then dumped in Beszel. That would constitute breach and the Breach forces would have to be notified, and take over. But until he can prove it, the case is Tyador's.
However, he can only go so far with his investigations in Beszel, and eventually he has to cross over into Ul Qoma to help the Ul Qoma police with their side of the investigation. It's a big step for Tyador, who hasn't visited Ul Qoma for many years, and he has to undergo training to help him 'unsee' Beszel, and see Ul Qoma instead. It would be far too easy for him to forget and inadvertently breach and then he would be arrested, and people taken away for breaching are never seen again. He begins to suspect the murder is something to do with a mythical hidden third city, called Orciny, that some people believe exists in the forgotten or unclaimed spaces between Ul Qoma and Beszel. But does Orciny even exist?
The City & The City is written in the first person, from Tyador's point of view, which gives the reader an insight into his mental struggles to switch from one city to another. It's an existential nightmare where the line between reality and appearance is distorted. Outsiders who visit one of the two cities - immigrants, tourists etc - have difficulty seeing them as anything other than one place and need to be carefully escorted to avoid breaching. To them it seems bizarre. But for Tyador it is about switching his location psychically rather than physically. Physically he has not gone anywhere, but psychically he is in another city, and is no longer allowed to see his own. And he is no longer allowed to be seen by anyone who knows him from his own city. They must pass by him as if he does not exist. He is aware always of being potentially observed by the all-seeing Breach forces, and must not step over the line.
It's a strangely fascinating concept, given added realism by the mention of real cities that Tyador has visited, such as London. Ul Qoma and Beszel have the same problems as other cities in Europe and it's easy to start seeing your own city as not so different after all. Any major city with a large ethnic minority community will have areas where the streets begin to change, where the shops sell strange and different things, and where the people in the street dress differently, talk in a different language and have different racial characteristics. It's like entering another country and we become aware of standing out, of looking like the foreigner, although only perhaps a few streets away from all that's familiar.
It's hard reading at times, with strange terminologies to get used to, and strange laws, that are hard to get to grips with at first. China Miéville's style is at times terse, economical, in keeping with Tyador's efficient, methodical personality. Much is left to the imagination. At other times he allows Tyador's inner thoughts to ramble, giving the reader insights of how the cities work, and how it feels to live there, and these are fascinating. In dialogue he avoids too much use of 'he said' 'she said', which can be a good thing, but at times he fails to indicate who is speaking often enough and it then becomes confusing. He brings in a lot of characters, but these don't always have very distinct voices, which can also make it difficult to keep track of who is speaking.
It's not an easy read, and parts of it become so complicated it's hard to keep pace with what's going on, but it's a fascinating journey if you like a challenging read that makes you think. I almost gave up a quarter of the way through, but then picked it up again and decided not to worry too much about the confusing parts, and just carry on reading, and I'm glad I did as I finally became hooked. There's a constant air of oppression in this story, reminiscent of Orwell's 1984. The characters live in a state of perpetual tension, of being observed doing the wrong thing, and this is what makes it fascinating and drives the story forward.
I found myself breathlessly reading on, and hoping that Tyador would somehow be unable to resist stepping over the line, and have to face the mysterious forces of Breach, so that I could find out what would happen. It makes for compelling reading, as we follow Tyador's journey through the cities and his fate becomes tied up with the resolution of the crime.
Number of pages: 312
Publisher - Macmillan, 2009