China Miéville’s The City & The City opens at the scene of a murder – Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel Extreme Crime Squad is investigating the death of a young woman whose body has been dumped in the dead of night near a skate park. What seems like an ordinary case, however, soon becomes complicated when the Inspector begins to suspect that the woman did not die in Besźel at all.
That is where the central conceit of the novel comes in: the Eastern European city of Besźel shares the same geographic location as another city, Ul Qoma, each with its own laws, language, culture, and with any violation of the boundaries between the two nations proscribed. The citizens of each city deal with this through the process of unseeing – learning to subconsciously detect the signs that indicate a person, place, or vehicle belongs to one city or another, and to unsee those that are not in their own location. The consequence of failing to maintain this boundary, of seeing or acting across the boundary between the cities, is to answer to the mysterious power called Breach.
And so the case unfolds, taking Inspector Borlú from his home in Besźel to the foreign country of Ul Qoma as he, with some help from colleagues, attempts to discover how and why the girl was killed, who by, and what it all has to do with Breach, and with old children’s tales of a third, hidden city between the two.
To fans of Miéville’s Bas Lag novels, The City & The City is very different. Where those books were full of fantastic and disturbing creations that made the setting thoroughly unreal, the setting of this novel is almost mundane – the distinction between the two cities is one of perspective, the world within and surrounding each city indistinguishable from the real world.
Without going too much into the plot, I can say that The City & The City is successful at what it sets out to do, which is to tell a traditional crime story within a Weird setting. China Miéville is a gifted writer, and the prose in this novel is some of his best. If I have one criticism, it is that there is very little of the characters in this story. We are kept apart from Borlú’s personal life, which is understandable as the story is about him as a detective, but I also felt that I had no clear sense of his personality. Through his point of view, side characters such as Corwi and Dhatt were difficult to read, and it could be hard at times to tell how they felt about their interactions with Borlú.
The characters, however, are not so much the focus as the mystery, and in that I feel that Miéville did a good job. The City & The City is a solid work, and well deserves the award nominations it has received.
I look forward in anticipation of Miéville’s next release.