In the European city of Beszel, the body of a murdered woman is found. Inspector Tyador Borlú is assigned the case, but further investigation leads him to believe that the murder is not as routine as it looks at first glance: the woman appears to have connections with the city of Ul Qoma.
This complicates matters considerably. Beszel and Ul Qoma uneasily occupy the same physical location, a feat that is accomplished through both the willingness of the denizens of the two worlds to “unsee” each other, and the powerful and mysterious force known as “Breach”. Strict laws enforce the illusive boundaries between the two cities, and penalties for breaking these laws are severe.
I’m going to cut to the chase here: The City & The City was one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It was a book that carried me deep into its pages and never cut me loose until the very end; it was a book I closed with a sigh, reluctantly detaching myself from immersion into its world and back into my own reality.
In The City & The City, China Miéville has created a world that is both incredible and realistic. He has placed his world of sister cities, nestled together on the same physical terrain but with very different cultures, into our current world. The melding of the things we know – cell phones, the United Nations, television, airplanes, Google, email – with the concept of a place physically occupied by two cities whose citizens accomplish the feat of maintaining the separateness of each by “unseeing” any signs of the other, produces a setting that feels so tangibly real, one is tempted to pull out an atlas and search for signs of Beszel and Ul Qoma.
The language Miéville uses gives credence to this illusion: the words read as if they have been translated into English from a rich and foreign tongue. There is a lushness to the writing that takes you straight into exotic streets:
Laced by the shadows of girdered towers that would loom over it if they were there, Ascension Church is at the end of VulkovStrász, its windows protected by wire grilles, but some of its stained panes broken. A fish market is there every few days. Regularly I would eat my breakfast to the shouts of vendors by their ice buckets and racks of live molluscs. Even the young women who worked there dressed like their grandmothers while behind their stalls, nostalgically photogenic, their hair tied up in dishcloth-coloured scarves, their filleting aprons in patterns of grey and red to minimise the stains of gutting. The men looked, misleadingly or not, straight off their boats, as if they had not put their catches down since they emerged from the sea, until they reached the cobbles below me. The punters in Beszel lingered and smelled and prodded the goods.
The mystery itself is a complex and intricate one, with the tension as we edge towards denouement building relentlessly until we discover the identity of the murderer, the motive, the how, the why.
Finishing the book, I was dazzled by Miéville’s skill in creating such a realistic world, impossible though it may be; it was a world that stayed with me, a world so credible even now it seems to me that perhaps the impossible is not really so improbable. Miéville also stays committed to the mystery, never letting that slide by the wayside, and wrapping it in the layers of the world of Beszel and Ul Qoma so that it merges seamlessly with his worldbuilding.
The City & The City vividly demonstrates that separation and boundaries can, indeed, be fashioned from nothingness. Perhaps even more disturbing, it shows us the role we ourselves play in the maintenance of such illusions.
Whether you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, or are a mystery lover, or simply enjoy a well-written book with language that reaches out and grabs hold of you, I highly recommend The City & The City.
Where to buy The City & The City:
Review copy details: published by Ballantine Books, 2009, Hardcover, 312 pages