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Thursday, October 1, 2009

The City & The City by China Miéville

Title: The City & The City
Author: China Miéville
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Pages: 336
Release Date: May 26, 2009

Beszel and Ul Qoma are two entirely different cities: one, grubby and loud; the other, rich and artistic. When Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad gets involved in a new murder case, he finds himself straddling both cities as increasingly bizarre clues reveal themselves to him. The only danger is Beszel and Ul Qoma exist simultaneously in the same location: twin cities joined by a sense of perspective and dimension. It’s absolutely critical that citizens, and Borlú in particular as a policzai, exercise complete control over “seeing” and “unseeing,” “smelling” and “unsmelling,” “hearing” and “unhearing”--the methods taught to citizens and visitors of both cities where one must see only what exists in one city at a time. To acknowledge the existence of the other in anything but an academic or conceptual context is to invoke the wrath of Breach.

The City & The City isn’t your typical Miéville novel. It is if you take into consideration the inclusion of economics, politics, and his unmistakably dense, cryptic dialogue and narrative. Otherwise, it remains a detective novel of the hard-boiled variety: Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler rolled up and re-made with Miéville’s characteristic SF bend. It’s not as looming or horrific as Perdido Street Station or The Scar (or even King Rat), but he always infuses his cities with as much character as the rest of the cast; Besz and Ul Qoma are no different. In fact, their very existence is vital to the reader’s understanding of the book.

Tyador is the narrator and comes to us through the first person, a choice that sometimes makes a book exclusive and harder to read. That’s not the case here. The suspense of the murder and the snaking trail that leads Borlú far from his home and the murder is heightened with the slow, teasing revelations the reader experiences as Borlú does. There is no panicked gripping of the pages as we, frustrated, hope against all hope Borlú escapes an omniscient evil--no, we are all subject to the consequences of the story as it unravels, no one knows any more than anyone else. We can’t fault Borlú for falling into unseen traps or revel in any dramatic irony.

The writing was harder for me to get into than other works by Miéville. I don’t know if that was due to time or if he did become a bit more elusive and stingy with his exposition. The good thing is Miéville always assumes an intelligent reader and reveals important details to us as they would normally come along. He does not stop to describe the unnecessary--everything adds to the flavor of the cities and the heavy ambiance of mystery. In particular, the description of the two cities is from Borlú’s perspective as a local. This made it a little difficult for me to catch on earlier as to what was going on with regards to his locale, and about 50 or so pages into the book, a vague, musing explanation is given. There is no scientific explanation for their existence and no explanation for the all of the odd terminology Miéville uses freely, but this I liked. Instead, words are given a context for our understanding and the novel progressed smoothly. Fans of Miéville’s writing will still enjoy the dense prose, albeit a little foreign in the new terrain of detective fiction.

The murder takes a backseat to everything else Borlú becomes entangled in. Instead of driving the narrative forward, the murder becomes an accessory to a greater element: the mysterious and mythical Orciny and the much feared Breach. At times it seemed like an odd combination: detective fiction and SF; the narrative reflected this dichotomy in the priority switching of the plot, but for the most part, I was kept in suspense and found myself not caring where the narrative took me, but that I was carried along the journey well entertained.

My only disappointment comes from the ending. I liked where Borlú’s path led him and the transcendent, if annoyingly explicit commentary of the novel, but felt a huge lack when it came to my hopes in the existence of a greater power. I guess I put too much stock in the fantasy of the novel, but I did enjoy it.

Personally, I would have enjoyed the metaphor of the book a lot more if it wasn’t spelled out for me in the end, by which point I’d already caught on, but overall think it was wonderfully executed. In a novel that questions “where it is that we live” (p 312), Miéville captured the frustration, and ultimately freedom, that comes from a close examination of our own philosophical existence with the larger world around us. I’d definitely recommend this to fans of China Miéville for the novelty of a break from his usual writing, but also to newcomers. The City & The City is well worth the read.

4 comments:

TJ said...

I'll probably give this one a shot. Though I get bothered sometimes when authors feel we lowly readers need everything spelled out. :P

Erika said...

It's one line, really at the very end, but is extremely uncharacteristic of Miéville. I was surprised and confused, to say the least. This was not my favorite Miéville book.

BookObsessed said...

Excellent Review - not too much info & not too little! I will probably still read it too. I am intrigued by both the idea & the theory he got the idea from. The theory being "String Theory" which I think most people have heard of by now but I only learned about maybe a year ago when they solved the only stumbling point in their theory. It basically stated that there are 10 dimensions inhabiting the same space at all times we just can't see them - but in the scientific theory there are exact duplicates of everything & all of us - 1 for each dimension with just slight variations like turning what would change if you turned left instead of right. I've been fascinated by it since I first heard of it! My explanation might not be exactly right but it basically is & it gave Mieville his idea for this book. Even if he hasn't publicly said so - it's just obvious!

Erika said...

I'm familiar with String Theory. It's interesting to note in relation to the book, but you'll forgive me if I think the implications of String Theory on this book, albeit SF, lean heavily towards the literary--the ways in which it's related to the human condition--rather than a direct use of the theory. :)

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