“An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In a glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking. With a hard start, I realized that she was not on GunterStráz at all, and that I should not have seen her.” (The City and The City Miéville)
Let’s get a few details out of the way. The City and the City is a brilliant piece of noir crime fiction set in two cities, Ul Qoma and Besźel, whose boarders are crosshatched and intertwined in the same physical space. Since the two cities are actually in their own countries, residents of Ul Quoma cannot legally see, hear, or smell a resident of Besźel, even if they are walking side by side, or sleeping in adjacent apartments, unless they legally enter into the other city though a single boarder checkpoint. Though this set-up may boggle the mind in a similar way that science fiction can, Meiville never actually steps into that genre. Instead, The City and The City is a classic murder mystery, solved by the grounded and insightful Inspector Borlú, with a setting so clearly and viscerally invoked that the reader will remember the cities as if they once lived there.
Miéville transforms his strange disconnected cities into a believable setting by daring to delve into the gritty, cumbersome details of world building over and over again. Most writers, of any genre, tend to simply suggest a setting, alluding to a feudal background or technofuture with a few sentences, but Miéville brings every thought back to the cities’ delineations and complexities. Each of Borlu’s conversations and meanderings familiarizes the reader with the idea of unseeing and unhearing illegal sights and sounds present in an adjacent foreign country, so that the intellectual feat of imagining of two superimposed city-states becomes as easy and interesting as walking down your own street. Miéville almost renders the impossible banal through the constant first-person delineation of streets and countries, but avoids this atrocity by twisting the plot in on itself so that he breaks his own carefully defined rules, forcing the reader to re-see and re-hear all that they’d just become comfortable un-noticing.
Recommended Action: Buy –
Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Length: 500 pgs
Ending: Mystery solved
Further Reading: There is nothing else remotely as brilliant or ingenious as The City and The City. Personally, I’m going to have to make time to read everything else China Miéville has ever written, because something this careful and precise is no accident – I will trust him with any genre.