This was written up for a guest blog on Dreams and Speculation (formally known as Book Love Affair), so it’s cross-posted there. I know I’ve mentioned this blog before so go forth and check it out if you haven’t already. It’s one of my favorite speculative fiction blogs.
I’ve never read China Miéville before, despite hearing how good Perdido Street Station and Un Dun Lin were. This was one of those authors I would try “one day”. When I heard Miéville won the Arthur C. Clarke award for the third time for The City & The City, I thought, “Hmm, yeah, I really should try out his books when I get the TBR under control”. This might have been in a couple of years or never at the rate I’m going, but when Dreams and Speculation contacted me for a guest review and offered The City & The City to read, it jumped to the top of my priority list.
The Premise: When the body of a young woman is found dumped naked under a mattress, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad is on the case. He lives in Besźel, a city that shares the same space as another city, Ul Qoma. At first the case looks like many before it, but as Tyador learns more about the young woman who was murdered, it becomes apparent that this is more than it first seems. Conspiracies swirl around the investigation and Tyador has to cross the border into Ul Qoma to solve it.
My Thoughts: When I finished this book, closed it’s cover, and put it down, one word came out of my mouth. That word was: “Weird”.
The biggest mind bender for me was the setting. Besźel and Ul Qoma are cities that overlap each other in the same spot. Before I started reading, I assumed there was some sort of inter-dimensional magic involved and perhaps Besźel was on one plane and Ul Qoma was on another, but when I read the book I realized maybe that wasn’t it. People in Ul Qoma could see and hear (and smell) the people in Besźel and vice versa, so while they are separate, they are together. If you were in Besźel, you quickly unsee or unhear Ul Qoma, and if you are in Ul Qoma you unsee or unhear Besźel. This made perfect sense to the people in these two cities, who were trained from a young age to recognize the colors, clothes, and walk of their neighbors and to willfully ignore their existence. To enforce this rule, if someone were to actually interact in some way with the other country – perhaps mistake a Besź for an Ul Qoman, Breach steps in. Breach is the bogeyman which coalesces upon a person who has breached. Everyone fears it.
To me though, this was a foreign concept. While Inspector Borlú’s perception of the other country when he was in his own sounded like he was looking at it through some misty barrier, I began to wonder about the true nature of the separation between the two cities. Méiville sets the cities in our world, in what sounds like Eastern Europe. Do the rules of physics apply, or is this a fantasy? Is Breach magical or does it seem that way to everyone raised to revere it? Is it just in the minds of the people in the two cities? And how about the breaches which happen regularly, but people must expect? If you unsee or unhear, you must see and hear first, right? There are a lot of these types of questions, and I have my opinion, but I don’t think there is a “correct” answer.
From there I wondered what genre The City & The City fell into. It was definitely detective noir, but was it also fantasy? Is it science fiction? Is it neither? It depends on how you interpret the setting, I think. Yes, Ul Qomo and Besźel are made up, which means there’s a lot of word building here I associate with speculative fiction, but I don’t know if the cities are separated by magic, or by science, or by societal rules. I had a really hard time deciding. Well, Wikipedia mentions that Miéville describes his work as “weird fiction”.
Me: “Yup, that works. “
The setting is folded neatly into Borlú’s investigation because his murder victim has links to a third city. The one in children’s stories that exists alongside Besźel and Ul Qoma – Orciny. As you can probably guess by now, Miéville plays it cagey there too. Whether Orciny exists is intertwined in the investigation, because the murder victim may have discovered it. I enjoyed Borlú’s moments of brilliance that moved the investigation along when it looked like it was about to stagnate, but the existential dilemmas tangled in the crime solving sort of narrows down who is going to enjoy this book. I think if you’re a reader who enjoys Weird Fiction and this sort of clever setting, you’d be as happy as a clam, but despite the good writing and interesting world, I think while I read this, I wanted a twinge less headspace taken up with pondering the cities, and more pondering the murder.
I have the Random House reader’s circle edition of this book. It comes with a conversation with the author at the end of the book, reading group questions, and an excerpt of Kraken. The conversation made me feel like I was getting some of the things the author was aiming for in the story so it was nice to read it, although it did reinforce my feeling of being teased.
Overall: A story that combines detective noir with a weird but clever genre-bending setting. I liked it – the prose is perfect and the world building (a very important thing in my enjoying a book) superb, but I think I wanted a little less cleverness, and a little more straight detective noir. I’m giving this an actual numerical score for D&S’s archives – 7, leaning towards an 8. Can I say 7.5?
Video of an author interview