The City and the City
A book review by Zoey Tsoura
A rather unique noir detective novel, from the British writer that has taken fantasy awards by storm for the past two decades.
Inspector Tyador Borlu is tasked with solving a gruesome murder that took place in his city, the poor and dull Beszel. The victim is a woman nobody recognizes. His investigation leads him to worrisome revelations, multilayered conspiracies, and dangerous paths. The most dangerous one of all is heading towards another city, the shiny and modern Ul Qoma, which occupies the same geographical space as Beszel, existing parallel to it, and which Borlu and his fellow citizens aren’t allowed to even look at…
This is the first China Miéville book I read, as well as the first modern detective novel in general and the first that belongs to the fantasy subgenre called weird fiction or/and New Weird. The author creates a thrillingly atmospheric, mysterious, and dark setting. Beszel and Ul Qoma are two cities that coexist in the same geographical space, like parallel dimensions.
They evoke images of the West and East Berlin. There are parts that belong solely to Beszel or solely to Ul Qoma, and interweaved, overlapping areas that belong to both. When you are in Beszel you are forbidden to look at Ul Qoma’s buildings, or its people, or even its lights at night. It is forbidden to interact with its residents, acknowledge its existence in any way.
The same goes about Beszel when you live in Ul Qoma. Breaking that law is the worst possible crime one can commit, and the punishment is delivered by a shady organization no one has set eyes on but everyone is terrified of: the Breach. Inside this complicated and bleak setting, where everyday life is experienced as a constant minefield of restrictions, Inspector Tyador Borlu has to solve a murder that doesn’t care about borders and laws.
It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Beszel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time … you can’t come back from that.
It takes a while for the reader to acclimate in this parallel existence and its rules, but Miéville weaves those in an extraordinary way and understanding the mindset of these people was a pleasant challenge. The political element is very, very, present, both in the detective mystery itself through the implication of different political groups (the far-right, the supporters of a union, the moderates), and in the social and philosophical aspects of the setting itself: the poor aren’t allowed to look at the wealthy, developing city, the rich aren’t allowed to acknowledge the existence of the poor, decaying one.
The characters were admittedly somewhat uninteresting. None of them received much depth. The dialogue became weird sometimes, as if losing continuity and coherence. Ironically enough (or intentionally, perhaps) the most developed and vivid character was the murder victim, whose activities and life are gradually revealed. The protagonists of this novel are clearly the two Cities, with the human characters moving within and beyond their borders like in a shadow play. The further I read, however, the more I found myself appreciating this conscious choice.
The City and the City will haunt you with its atmosphere and setting for a long, long time. It will intrigue you with a mystery in which every answer gives birth to more questions. It will make you wonder, and keep wondering after you’ve finished it. It may even make you question your own reality. Next time you look out your window, ask yourself:
Which city do you see? And is there perhaps another city, coexisting with your own, that you’ve been taught never to look at?
Synopsis: When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlu must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.
With shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984, the multi-award winning The City & The City by China Mieville is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.
Title: The City and the City
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Year of publication: 2011