When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Besźel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú 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.
Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other. It is a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen, a journey to Besźel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbour, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma.
I’ve not read much by China Miéville before, only managing to get about half way through Perdido Street Station, but I’ve heard so many good things about his writing and stories that it was with great anticipation that I jumped into The City and The City. I knew not to expect the normal weirdness that Miéville is so well known for, but this was an even better reason to try a more straightforward and mainstream novel from him. Did it work for me? Well, not entirely.
Basically, when it comes down to it, The City and The City is a whodunnit? That much is clear, but it’s the way that the investigation takes place that makes the story a more interesting variant on the norm. With both cities essentially occupying the same physical space, with interference between the two (i.e. stepping from one city to another, talking to a person in another city) highly illegal. Breach, the people that deal with instances of this law breaking, act hard and fast when such things happen. With the way the murder is set up, and the initial investigation by Borlú, some interesting facts come to light that throw what could be a fairly straightforward inquiry into one of strange secrets.
The cities themselves – the old city of Besźel and the vibrant city of Ul Qoma – are described remarkably well. The atmosphere and vision that is given from the pages is extremely vivid, at least when they are described individually. I found that when the descriptions were of the two cities together, for example ‘unseeing’ one city while in the other, the clarity faltered. This isn’t down to the writing, but more like the idea’s fault. The main problem is that this is a story that would fit excellently into a full fantasy novel, but has been forced into a more normal world.
While I did struggle at times because of the above, the characters were able to carry the plot well. Borlú was a good character and has interactions throughout the novel, through both familiar colleagues and one off encounters, were fully believable for an investigator. The methods employed were logical and I didn’t once feel that he, or any other character, were misplaced. There was a weakness in the characters in the fact that none of them were overly memorable, rather the idea and the cities stood at the forefront and were the priority.
All in all I have no problem at all with the general premise of The City and The City, but the execution of the story failed to get me going at the start. I felt the slow build up took too long and when it did get going it never quite hit the right note. This could have been an excellent novel if it were based in a pure fantasy setting, but it just didn’t work enough for me to thoroughly enjoy it.