Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: The City & The City by China Mieville

The City & The City is a detective novel by China Mieville. I'm a fan of Mieville for his intricate language, the worlds he creates, and the unique place that Setting has in his stories. I had already read this book several years ago when it won the 2012 Hugo award for best novel (tied to Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl). However, I recently recommended it to the book club I'm in and was happy to see it accepted as this month's pick. Interestingly enough, there is a set of discussion questions at the end of the book for any reading groups. I've only seen that in a few books, but it's a great way to encourage deeper discussions.

So what's the book about? It's a police procedural, anti-fantasy story where a dead body is found in one city, but the murder appears to have taken in another city. However, while these two cities are in exactly the same place, they are in completely separate countries and people from one cannot see, hear, or interact with those of the other. As the investigation proceeds, we learn both rumors and facts about that which lurks in the gaps between the city and the city.

Read on for my (spoiler-free) review.

Overall Impression
This is one of my favorite China Mieville books. It's an odd novel because the premise is highly fantastical, yet in the author interview he agrees that a good term for it is anti-fantasy. We don't see the surreal aspects of some of the author's other works like in Perdido Street Station, nor do we see the intricate language and extensive neologisms he loves to coin like in Embassytown. Part of that is due to the first person narrative and to the noir detective style of the novel. Regardless, this is still a very enjoyable book and will keep you guessing as to what actually is real within the story.

Plot
The story revolves around the murder of a young woman and the associated mystery behind it: who, where, when, how, and most important of all: why. Through the investigation, we, the readers, learn of the mysterious and unique nature of the two cities. At the same time, we also learn with the characters of the rumors of a third, hidden city between the two, Orciny, which turns this from a simple murder to a political intrigue that could topple the structure and balance of the two cities.

Characters
The story is told through the eyes of the main character, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad. While he is not an unreliable narrator, he is firmly invested in the way the city and the city work and thus we, the readers, are left wondering just how intricate the separation between the cities actually is. In addition to Borlú, we also see his colleagues Corwi and Dhatt as well as characters associated with an archeological dig in the rival city of Ul Qoma- Mahalia, Yolanda, and Bowden, among others. Overall, though, the cast is pretty small given the first-person narrative and the nature of the story.

As with all of Mieville's works (at least, those I've read thus far), the City, or more accurately, the Setting, is such an important part of the story that it feels like a character itself. I could describe it here, but I have a whole section on Setting in my reviews.

Setting / World Building
The city, both cities, are an integral part of The City & The City. On the one hand, you have Beszel, where Borlú is from. Parallel (or perhaps more accurately, perpendicular?) to this city is Ul Qoma. Both cities belong in different countries and have different languages, cultures, currencies, laws. A person in Beszel cannot see Ul Qoma and vice-versa. Some places are total in Beszel, while others are alter; that is, those alter in Beszel are total in Ul Qoma. The most interesting and controversial parts are the cross-hatched regions, where both Beszel and Ul Qoma exist simultaneously. This can be several whole blocks, a street, or even just a single building with separate rooms belonging to one city or the other.

However, even when in a cross-hatched part of town, one must be careful to sense only the city one is in and no other. To fail to do so is to breach and there exists an entity, a power-- Breach-- whose sole purpose is to enforce this division and to disappear those who violate and cross over the invisible boundaries of the city and the city. The whole story is an exercise in understanding the nature of Breach and the way Beszel and Ul Qoma work in tandem within its constraints.

Final Thoughts
I highly recommend this book if you want a taste of what Mieville is all about. It may not be his most representative work, but it is certainly one of the most "normal" ones and thus easier to read and engage in. While I've marked this review as "Fantasy", as you read the book, you will no doubt wonder if that's an appropriate label. Certainly "Science Fiction" could apply, but it doesn't feel right either. This is a hallmark of Mieville's work: you can't tell what genre it really belongs in. In an interview at the end of the book, the author agrees that the label "anti-fantasy" is appropriate for The City & The City. I must say I completely agree with that term and I think you may also agree if you read the book.

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