Reading something by China Miéville has been on my book “to-do-list” for some time. So when looking for a new read among the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning books I guessed now was a good a time as any to make the leap. Described as a “weird-fiction crime novel” how could I pass it by?
The City and The City has a really interesting concept. It is set in two cities, Besźel and UI Qoma. The strange thing about these cities is that they occupy the same geographical space, but are perceived and processed by the senses as different cities. This is possible through the behaviour of the citizens and a mysterious power called the Breach. As the story unwinds another location, Orciny, comes to demand our attentions as a place that occupies the spaces between cities.
The story follows inspector Tyadór Borlú of the Besźel Extreme Crime Squad. He is assigned the murder investigation of a young women. Through this investigation Borlú is drawn into a world of intrigue where he skirts danger, threats to his life across the two cities, the possible secret existence of the secret space, Orciny and the Breach.
The concept of these two cities is really interesting. Miéville takes this complex and potentially confusing idea and makes it accessible and clear. Through Borlú, we learn that each city has its own assigned traits to help citizens stay in their own spaces. These are clothes, language, architecture, city mapping and of course, the income bracket. Besźel is a poorer city with crime, poverty and dirt while UI Qoma is described as a place with history, culture, society and disposable incomes.
How this works practically is that citizens “see” their city and “unsee” other the other. Through this system they are able to stay in their assigned world. I found this idea really interesting. As someone who lives in a city I can tell you that seeing and unseeing is definably a part of city living. So many time I have ignored litter, anti-social behaviours, creeps, and other unpleasant things. The next step up could be “unseeing”. So as creative a concept that Miéville utilised it is not too far away from reality. Not that we will have overlaid cities any time soon!
I found Miéville’s exploration of sectarianism and tribalism skilled and very satisfying as a reader. As you can imagine, living in a set-up like this, people would develop attachments and a sense of pride in where they were from. There was a borderline obsession with heritage and past identities among some of the population. These feeling soon developed for many people into prejudice, distrust and hated. As a backdrop to Borlú’s story we have an ongoing war between separatists and unificationists. This war was for the hearts and minds of the populace and unsurprisingly, it was blighted by moments of violence. Again this is not a new concept, look at Northern Ireland or the Middle East, but it is applied skilfully and makes for an engaging story. As a reader I definitely wanted to know more, and Miéville did not disappoint.
Aside from the geo-political tensions and shadowy border monitors there is still a murder to be solved. The murder of the young woman was shocking especially as she turns out not to be the victim that the police were expecting. The tale of the investigation was exciting to see unfold, as we learn who the young woman was, what she occupied her time with and why someone could have wanted her dead. As other characters come into the story I was not able to predict what way the investigation was turning, as clueless as poor Borlú.
While investigating Borlú had to deal with the above mentioned breach. Breach is huge, all seeing, all knowing entity who have the ability and permission to slip between cities. It was always hiding there, like a sinister monster under the bed. It added a sense of pressure and at times hope. It was never clear whether breach was a necessary evil, a benevolent dictator or something else entirely.
Spoilers for the ending – highlight to reveal if you dare.
I really liked the end of this book. I loved the way that the explanation had nothing to do with magic or gods. It was a real world plan by actual tangible human beings who lied and manipulated a curious woman to achieve their goals. Their goals of course were centred in greed, and you can’t get much more human than that.
One thing I would have liked would be to have the concept of breach explored a bit more. It was always there hiding like a monster under the bed. I would have liked to know a bit more about how it operated and how their powers worked. But I understand that in any story there is a finite about of space given the elements and maybe it would not have been possible for Miéville to go into that level of detail. Maybe it was also the appeal of the organisation, they stayed relatively shady and mysterious through the story.
This book is a testament to Miéville’s skill as a writer. If the story was written with less certainty it could have been a mess. The concept of the two cities, breach, Orciny, and the rest of the world had the potential to become a muddled confusion. I thought it was masterfully juggled. If you are finding it hard at the start to distinguish between the two don’t panic, it does sink in eventually.
The story was written as a gift for China’s terminal ill mother. It was reported that she was a fan of crime novels so he write this for her. This is why it is said to be so different from his other work. But if the imagination levels are the same, I’d say any fan would be happy to read The City and The City.
Do stick with it, the story is exciting and sucks the reader right in. The characters were interesting and the intrigue gripping. So if you like a twist to your crime story, or some crime in your weird fiction universe then I would recommend that you pick up a copy.
These are Amazon Affiliate links and when you purchase through these we receive a small commission to help cover site costs. Thanks for your support.