Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Review: The City & The City

The City & The City by China Mieville

Initially, The City & The City takes place in the fictional eastern European city of Beszel, where a young woman is found murdered. At first glance it appears to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlu, but it turns out to be anything but routine. In order to properly investigate, Borlu, must travel to the neighboring city of Ul Qoma, a city that is very different from Beszel, yet the two are related in a very fantastical way.

Once in Ul Qoma, Borlu teams up with Ul Qoman detective, Qussim Dhatt, and the two work to uncover clues about the murder. As they begin to unravel the mystery, they also begin to suspect a truth, one that points to unseen powers behind both cities, and the secret that relates the two cities to one another.

The major, and arguably only, fantastical element to this novel is the nature of the two cities, Beszel, and Ul Qoma. The two cities share physical space, but not social or legal space. This at times was a hard concept to grasp because it is a multi-faceted concept. At times the terms of the distinction between the two cities appeared to be physical, the two cities certainly have their own identities, and characteristics. However, at other times it came across as a psychological distinction: inhabitants of one city simply used a technique of "unseeing" to maintain distinctions. Then there are "crosshatched" sections of the cities where a location appears to be in both cities at the same time. Things like greenspaces, rivers, and large buildings often had a degree of crosshatching that caused ambiguity. Of course all of this gets even more fantastical as the author begins to explore the space between the two cities: Breach.

While this novel is much lighter in terms of the surreal that you can usually find in a book by China Mieville, there are hints at it. Not only in the relationship of the two cities, but also in the bizarre artifacts that are dug up at an archeological site in Ul Qoma.

Above all else, this is a well written crime novel. If taken only at that single value, this is a solid book, however when you add in the surreal, fantastical elements you get much more. I found the relationship of the two cities to be quite thought provoking, and since Mieville never comes right out and tells what the hell is going on, the reader gets a personalized perception of what is going on in Beszel, Ul Qoma and inbetween.

One complaint I have is that the book was difficult to get into. I dragged through the first third of the book, then my enjoyment waxed and waned through the final two thirds. This might just be a gripe that is unique to me though as the book wastes no time, beginning at the scene of the crime.

Overall this is a solid novel. It is interesting and thought provoking, and I like knowing that, due to the fantastical content, my experience of reading it is unique to me. This is a "fantasy" novel that can be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.

Grade: B-

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