Author: China Miéville
Publication Date: 5/26/09
Publisher: Del Rey
Blurb(GR): New York Times bestselling author China Miéville delivers his most accomplished novel yet, an existential thriller set in a city unlike any other–real or imagined.
When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.
Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own. This is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen. His destination is Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, and struggling with his own transition, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of rabid nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them and those they care about more than their lives.
What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.
Casting shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984, The City & the City is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.
I think that this is the absolute worst choice for someone who’s never read China Mieville. Like me. All I have to say is: it’s a good thing that I have an endless store of patience and I like being confused. In audiobook terms, it took eight miles, three loads of laundry, four bathrooms, and a huge batch of vegetable korma for me to start liking this book. My interest was sparked by his creative, highly detailed world building, and my brain was completely engaged by the dozens of philosophical tangents that this world initiated in me. Oh, and there’s also a murder mystery, but that feels more like window dressing for some Very Big Ideas.
This book begins like so many other murder mysteries – with a young, beautiful, dead girl in an alley. Of course everyone assumes that she’s a prostitute, and of course, she ends up having a much larger story to tell. Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad is one of the first to arrive at the scene. He soon begins to suspect that the murder is a precursor to a much more significant crime: breach. In Beszel, the people are conditioned from childhood to “unsee” and not perceive in any way the people of Ul Qoma, a city which occupies some of the same geographic space as Beszel and is distinguished only by the learned habits of the citizens and the architecture and language endemic to each area. To see, acknowledge, or cross over into Ul Qoma from Beszel is a taboo – the severest of crimes, policed by a shadowy and seemingly all powerful force named for the crime itself. But when it is revealed that breach has in fact not taken place, Inspector Borlu must investigate the murder, which necessitates a journey through Beszel, Ul Qoma, and all the places in between.
Somewhere around halfway through this book, the foreground of the murder mystery faded for me and the backdrop of the cities took center stage. This book made me think about the ways that we all define ourselves and our homes, and how they have very little to do with geographic location. It made me think about all of the social constructs and taboos that aren’t in place because of logic or natural inclination, but because of generations of training and conditioning. It made me think about how easy it is to see the absurdity of these behaviors as an outsider, but how impossible it is to see them from the inside. It made me think about revolution: how complicity and pack mentality can keep a belief in place, but how minds are inevitably opened and changed one at a time. It made me think about how some people go out looking to have their beliefs undermined and others hold violently to what they have, but most of us fall into neither category. And this book made me think about how lonely and debilitating it can be to have even the most illogical of beliefs dissolved away. Once your eyes are opened, you can never go back to the way you were.
So yeah, with all of these thoughts swimming around in my head (and really, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t even scratch the surface of this thing), it’s easy to understand why I found the murder plot and even the main character to be a bit flat. So, if you are new to China Mieville, I would suggest starting somewhere else (I’ve already checked out Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun to attempt a catch-up) and if you already love China Mieville, then you will probably get way more out of this book than I did! I highly recommend it for current fans, or people who like to be thrown in the deep end.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Radiohead – Little by Little