When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Besźel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.
China Miéville’s The City & The City is this year’s awards darling; it won the BSFA award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, tied for the Hugo Award with Paolo Bacigalupi and was nominated for the Nebula Award. Not having read anything by Miéville before, and knowing that this constituted a major #bookfail, The City & The City seemed a good place to start. It was! Although after about 30 pages I concluded I should re-read the book in a month or two to get all of it. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to write a really erudite, clever and funny review, but these days me keeping the same train of thought for more than five minutes without interruptions is rare. So I figured if I actually wanted to post it this century, it’ll just have to be how I write reviews normally.
Besides the murder mystery there are several other mysteries such as Orciny and Breach. All of these are solved by the end of the novel. Or are they? I have to confess that I’m still not sure about Orciny! But I’ll leave that for you to figure out and decide for yourself. I love the intricacy of the cities. The cities of Besźel and Ul Quam are almost an evolved version of the city of Berlin before 1989. Though instead of one city divided by a wall, there are two cities overlapping each other. All that separates them are insubstantial mental barriers held up by the citizens’ mental discipline and a mysterious agency called Breach. These mental barriers are held up by the discipline of unseeing. Miéville has put a lot of thought and detail into this unseeing. Even explaining that children are taught to unsee the other city from a young age, but aren’t liable for small breaches until they are old enough to be expected to understand and take responsibility for their own unseeing. Similarly the rules are applied more leniently to tourists as well. Though, if a tourist knowingly breaches, they are swept up by Breach just as quickly as a normal citizen. The labyrinthine entanglement of the cities and its origin forms the greatest mystery of all and it’s a mystery not even its inhabitants have solved.
I adore crime series, both in book form and on tv, with police procedurals being my favourite kind. So that side of The City & The City was right up my alley. Borlú, Corwi and Dhatt are great characters. I especially loved the interaction between Borlú and Dhatt. The jurisdictional territoriality came through beautifully in Dhatt and his Ul Qoman colleagues, though Dhatt and Borlú end up working together really well and even build a bit of trust between them, which to my eyes made it even better. What made me really happy was Corwi not being the obligatory love interest I was afraid she might be. I loved that she was just a very capable sidekick and that was it. The crime was solved with a twist which, at first, came out of the blue for me and seemed a bit farfetched until the true conclusion followed. And after the story had had a few days to sink in, I began seeing the clues I’d missed. As stated before, I need to re-read the book to get it all.
Best line of the book this time isn’t a funny line, but a line that touched my inner romantic and which reflects the strange and melancholy history between these twin cities of Besźel and Ul Quam:
Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border. (p.160)
I keep wondering about the rest of the story of these lovers. Where does it go, how does it end? One thing is for sure, it probably isn’t happy.
The City & The City lived up to all the expectations raised by the praise heaped upon it online and I can truly see why it’s won so many awards. It’s also made me want to read more of China Miéville’s work, because one taste of his writing just isn’t enough. The book is a definite recommended read and China Miéville a new addition to my must-read-authors-list!