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Review: The City and the City by China Mieville

January 19, 2012

I’ve avoided or been scared off from reading China Mieville plenty of times. On the surface, he’s a writer I should gobble up: he writes genre-hopping fiction with a literary air. He combines the extremely indelicate (detectives, mysterious fantasy settings, noir, and mystery) with an ineffable literary lightness.

I avoided Mieville primarily because he writes the kind of genre I don’t love. Perdido Street Station, what was hailed to me as his masterpiece, frustrated me with its urban, grimy fantasy. I’d tried to read this book, The City and the City, but got turned off because it was more police procedural than hard-boiled detective saga.

In the end, The City and the City treats the two genres like the two titular cities: always in one, but the reader can’t help unseeing the other.

The setting is what gets the book the most burn. The story takes place in Beszel, a city that feels like it’s in the Balkans, but also in Ul Qoma, a different city that occupies the same space. It’s nothing like other split cities in history, a character says early in the book, and it isn’t: it’s an incredibly novel, difficult concept, but once you wrap your head around it it’s brilliant.

I say it’s set in the Balkans because the story makes references to the split cities of the Balkans, where Eastern Europeans (Besz) and Muslims (Ul Qomans) live in the same space. This is a socially conscious metaphor befitting Mieville, someone whose politics are very strong, and it runs through the book without feeling alienating.

The detective, Tyador Borlu, is an excellent protagonist: part police officer, part detective, both in their classical senses. He’s part of the police system, but desperately wants to be outside of it because he’s too clever to be constrained by it. His assistants over the course of the book only serve to magnify this, them being very much characters in the system. This creates both an alluring comparison between the split city and Tyador’s split desires, but also with the racism element of the book, considering the different backgrounds his partners come from.

This says nothing of Breach, the universal police force who deal with going between the two cities in unprescribed ways. They are, in my eyes, the greatest weakness of the narrative. They are an organization with powers that are extremely limited, and frankly they serve to simplify and ameliorate the racial undertones of the book. They’re a mystical distraction designed to give the book a little bit of a push into genre, and in doing so they serve to distract from the premise, the detective work. They overcomplicate everything. By the climax of the book issues have been brought up with the premise of split cities in the same location so severe that I just had to disconnect and take the author at his word to enjoy it.

I cannot completely recommend the book. To do so would be to whitewash all of its many failings. I will, however, say anyone who finds the premise of a split city fascinating, anyone who loves a good fantasy detective yarn (and there are so many, let me tell you) will eat this book right up if they give it a chance.

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