The City and the City

~by China Miéville
2009 British Science Fiction Association Award Winner
2009 Locus Award Nominee
2009 Nebula Award Nominee
2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award Winner
2010 Hugo Award Nominee
2010 John W. Campbell Award Nominee

Before starting The City and the City I had only read one other book by China Miéville, Perdido Street Station, the first of his New Crobuzon novels. I quite enjoyed Perdido Street Station--at least up until the end which I felt cheated by. But I liked the rest of the book well enough that I wanted to read more Miéville. So it was serendipitous when The City and the City was chosen for the io9 book club. I had heard many a good thing about The City and the City; even those who didn't like Miéville's previous works seemed to be fond of it. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the novel was nominated for and won quite a few awards, including Miéville's landmark third Arthur C. Clarke Award. Although I am wary when a book receives such overwhelmingly positive reviews, I was still looking forward to reading The City and the City.

The two Eastern European city-states of Ul Qoma and Besźel are crosshatched--somehow physically located in the same geographic area but independent and separate political entities. The citizens of one city are practiced in unseeing and unsensing those in the other. Any breach in this etiquette is considered the greatest offense and is subject to the severest sanctions. When a woman's body is discovered dumped in a skate park in Besźel, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad is put on the case. Soon it becomes apparent that there are Ul Qoma connections to the crime and the investigation becomes much more complicated. It seems as though the woman, a doctoral student, has made more than her fair share of enemies in both Besźel and Ul Qoma. She was researching the existence of third hidden city known as Orciny, a taboo subject in academia, but could her discoveries really have cost her her life?

The City and the City is written in a much sparer style than Miéville's previous works and has a nice noir-ish feel to it. One of my favorite things about Miéville is that he's not afraid to mix his genres and conventions in order to create something truly unique--in this case a crime novel with fantasy elements. Another thing I admire is his command of the English language. Although the writing can be somewhat awkward in The City and the City and takes some getting used to, particularly the dialogue, I am always astonished by how Miéville manages to pick the exact needed word for a given situation. Because of the unusual nature of Ul Qoma and Besźel, he also creates some of his own, such as my personal favorite--topolganger.

I wouldn't say I was disappointed in The City and the City, but I didn't like it nearly as well as I was expecting to. I didn't care about any of the characters and I didn't even care about the plot, but I did absolutely love the cities. They were one of the main reasons that I kept reading the book. The interactions between the characters and their environment were fascinating and Miéville obviously put some thought into making crosshatched cities work. Even though they are fantastical, the amount of bureaucracy and politicking involved is certainly believable. In some ways it seems like Miéville was trying too hard to place his cities in the real world--pop culture references like Harry Potter threw me out of the story--but overall he handled it quite nicely. Miéville has mentioned that he might write more books featuring Tyador Borlú and Besźel that occur before the events in The City and the City. Even though I wasn't as taken with the novel as others seem to be, I would still be interested in seeing what else Miéville can do with its conceit.

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