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Monday, November 1, 2010

Review: The City and The City by China Miéville

The City and The City – China Miéville (Published 2009)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Urban with a strong dose of Hardboiled
Completed: October 25 2010

I will often read a book and admire the author’s specific skill with language, or their ability to evoke and develop character, or perhaps their focused and enthralling plotting. Occasionally I will read a book and be so disappointed that I feel like I could write a better story. After reading The City and The City I simply felt like China Miéville is much more intelligent than I am.

The City and The City defies genre classification. It has won numerous speculative fiction awards (including the Hugo Award for Best Novel), prompting purists to argue that it doesn’t actually contain any speculative elements. In my opinion, Miéville’s story requires more than enough suspension of disbelief to classify as Fantasy, though to describe the fantastic elements would spoil the story (I really regret reading reviews that explained too much).

Inspector Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crimes Squad is tasked with investigating the death of a young woman, found dumped in a typically dark and neglected Besz alley. Borlú determines that the victim was from the more advanced city of Ul Qoma, in spite of the fact that passage between the cities is heavily restricted. He goes through the motions of investigating, anticipating turning the case over to Breach, the mysterious group who punish those who breach the boundary between the cities. Of course, the case proves to be much more complicated than Borlú expected.

The City and The City draws in all of the tropes of hardboiled detective fiction and uses them masterfully to explore the themes of cultural identity, xenophobia and fear of unrestrained authority in a mind-bending and entertaining fashion. The first person structure of hardboiled fiction is used perfectly to allow Miéville to slowly unveil the mystery of his cities. Borlú, the protagonist and narrator, naturally provides the reader with detail only as it becomes relevant to his investigation. There are no patronising information dumps or simple explanations of the nature of the relationship between the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma.

It could be argued that the characters, like the incredibly focused Borlú, are somewhat flat and the dialogue little more than functional at times, but these weaknesses are overshadowed. Miéville’s genius is revealed in his setting. The cities are almost characters with their own peculiarities, with details like names and language used so effectively to define and differentiate them. Yet it is what the cities have in common that provides the core of The City and The City. In exploring their common ground, Miéville effortlessly maintains his grip on a complex idea that is inextricably linked with his incredible conclusion.

In spite of the flaws that would have held back a lesser work, The City and The City is a monumental work of fiction unlike any I have read before. I give it 4.5 stars and am sorely tempted to go for 5.

Read it – if you are willing to work to enjoy your fiction. You’ll feel more intelligent for having read this book.
Don't read it - if you are looking for a mainstream read that won't tax you.

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