The City & The City by China Miéville

29 September, 2010

I saw China Miéville give a talk at the Southbank last year. I wasn’t actually meant to go and see him, it was just on a whim, and because I hadn’t read any of his novels, I bought a ticket because I was fascinated by his name. But he really surprised and charmed me and I grabbed his latest book and got it signed. Of course, being a book junkie, it took me over a year to finally read it and in the meantime, The City & The City has been nominated for many awards and won the Arthur C Clarke, British Science Fiction Association and Hugo awards. And it thoroughly deserves it. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel like it.

Miéville said this was different from his previous novels; it’s a murder mystery and police procedural but with a big difference. I loved everything about it especially the concept of two completely different cities occupying one geographical space where the act of ‘unseeing’ citizens of both cities are taught from birth so as to go about daily life without ‘breaching’ and accidentally stepping into, seeing or confusing the space. It’s genius.

My expectations were pretty high from all the reviews I had been reading but I have to say the novel exceeded it. It’s clever, complicated and what I like most was that Miéville makes you do all the work to figure it all out. He doesn’t spell it out for you or draw a map (although I’d love to see a map of Besźel and Ul Qoma).

The story begins with the discovery of a young woman’s corpse in an empty skating park in Besźel. Inspector Tyador Borlú is called in to take over the case. But things are not as they seem because they can find no trace of the woman. In a strictly controlled and monitored society, this can only mean one thing: she doesn’t belong in Besźel and is from Ul Qoma. Borlú is desperate to hand the case over to the ‘Breach’, the shadowy organisation that deals with any breach between the cities but events conspire against that and Borlú finds himself going to Ul Qoma to track the murderer.

What makes this even more complicated is that the woman is an archeology PhD student who had caused a stink several years back by bringing up the existence of Orciny, the third mythic city which everyone denies exists. With fringe nationalists trying to keep Besźel and Ul Qoma separate and others trying to merge the two cities, Borlú with Dhatt, his Ul Qoma counterpart, must negotiate the intricate laws of the two cities and unravel the mystery of the student’s death.

It’s a difficult book to describe because there is so much packed into just over 300 pages. In The City & The City, Miéville has created a complete microcosm of a world similar to but more fantastical than Berlin when it was still divided. I loved the complexity of the two cities, the sparse prose of the detective story and the power of myth and ideology over the people who occupy that space. Very interesting and different and makes you think about whether you’re really seeing what is there. And after I finished the book I am still thinking about this wonderful world Miéville has created and feel that there are still more secrets that I would like to unearth.

Miéville stated he was greatly inspired by M. John Harrisson’s Viriconium so I’ll have to check it out as it’s one of the fantasy greats. And I definitely want to read more from Miéville. Impressive stuff.

An essay about Mieville can be found here.

I read this as part of the TBR 2010 Challenge. Yay, another one down from my TBR pile. Feels great!

15 Responses to “The City & The City by China Miéville”

  1. Iris Says:

    Wow, a novel that exceeds already high expectations promises to be a good read! I am not big on murder in books, as you might know, but this sounds so good that I think I need to read it.

  2. Steph Says:

    I have yet to read any Mieville, but I’ve only heard great things about him so I really want to. I like that his work is a bit dark and very off-the-wall… that’s what fiction is for in my opinion!

  3. amymckie Says:

    I’ve been hearing a lot about this book, and have a copy of it to read. I’m looking forward to it!

  4. Redhead Says:

    The City and the City is a wonderfully strange novel. But with Mieville, that’s what you expect – wonderfully strange! My favorite of his is The Scar. good stuff!

  5. Tamara Says:

    Great review – I’ve not heard of the author or the book before, but I do love a murder mystery and this sounds mysterous enough. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. Thanks

  6. Gavin Says:

    Great review, I’m glad you loved this one. Now try “Perdido Street Station”!

  7. I love the fact that you went to see him just because you liked his name 🙂 I wish finding great authors was always that simple! I loved this book – it was so clever! I have also read Perdido Street Station and while I loved the begininng it did drift into one long chase scene which wasn’t to my taste. I’m sure there are lots of other fantastic books in his back catalogue though.

  8. What a great review, Sakura! I have this book at home (after Jackie was raving about it). I really must get round to it sooner. I love murder mysteries anyway, but one with a twist that makes me do all the work sounds fabulous! 🙂

  9. chasing bawa Says:

    Iris: It’s a lot more than just a murder mystery so you might enjoy it.

    Steph: I think I read Tony’s review of ‘Kraken’ which I’m now dying to read. Then I’ll also have to go and visit the Natural History Museum:)

    amymckie: Yay, can’t wait to see what you think.

    Redhead: I haven’t read anything else by him so am excited that there’s so many books. Plus each one sounds so different.

    Tamara: I hope you try this book soon!

    Gavin: I’m torn between trying ‘Perdido Street Station’ or ‘Kraken’ next. But I’ll definitely be reading both.

    Jackie: I’d seen his name cropping up in bookshops and kept wondering who this author was so couldn’t resist. He did say that this was a good introduction to his weird fiction as it was a little more mainstream.

    The Book Whisperer: Can’t wait to see what you think, Boof. At least you have it on your TBR!

  10. Fëanor Says:

    I like your comparison of Mieville’s book to the schizophrenic nature of Berlin before unification. Have you read Sven Regener’s excellent Berlin Blues? (I mentioned it briefly in one of my posts a little while ago.)

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Thanks for the rec. I can probably count the number of books I’ve read about Berlin and Germany on two hands, although I’ve enjoyed them. However I’ve been watching quite a few films the most recent of which were Goodbye Lenin! and Wings of Desire both of which were excellent.

  11. Yurena Says:

    I adore Mièville’s books! 🙂 I started reading them during my university time in England several years ago when an article on him & other sci-fi writers was published on MsLexia magazine. I just stumbled upon your blog and will definitely come back to read more as I really like the kind of books you write about, nothing commercial but quality ones. Lovely layout too!

  12. […]  The City and The City won the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2010 Hugo Award, and 2010 World Fantasy Award, but more importantly it was a best of 2010 on Chasing Bawa’s blog!  […]

  13. Simon T Says:

    I got this because of your review – and I finally just read it! Such a clever concept, handled brilliantly.

    • Sakura Says:

      I love how we all get recommendations from each other over the years and finally read it years later!!! It’s a brilliantly executed book.

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