15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The City and The City
Neither pure science fiction nor entirely naturalistic, China Miéville's The City and The City functions in a strange hinterland between genre spaces. Significantly influenced by hardboiled noir detective fiction (notably Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy) and taking cues from Kafka, the novel is strikingly difficult to pin-down; and although many...
Published on 1 Aug 2011 by TomCat
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Amazing imagination, disappointing delivery
Two cities, Beszel, a decaying soviet style society and Ul Qoma, near Eastern in style. The body of a murdered young girl found in the vandalised playground of a sink estate by Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad [for some reason, annoyingly, Amazon doesn't seem to support accents, but there are acute accents over the first e in Mieville, the second in...
Published on 16 Oct 2010 by Jo Bennie
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The City and The City,
This review is from: The City & The City (Paperback)Neither pure science fiction nor entirely naturalistic, China Miéville's The City and The City functions in a strange hinterland between genre spaces. Significantly influenced by hardboiled noir detective fiction (notably Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy) and taking cues from Kafka, the novel is strikingly difficult to pin-down; and although many reviewers have tried resorting to long compound chains of genre labels (`post-modern-sci-fi-detective-noir' etc.), this is probably more confusing than helpful. So I think it's best if we stick with Miéville's own self-disclosed moniker `Weird Fiction' [his capitals], which though concise and a tad self-satisfied, is nonetheless a pleasingly eloquent descriptive of what is a damn unusual book.
As the name suggests, The City and The City is a novel rampant with doubling: it's set in two fictional cities in Eastern Europe: Bes'el and Ul Qoma, which although being different administrative, legal and cultural entities, nonetheless share the same physical space, topographically speaking; so one street may be in Bes'el, whereas the street immediately adjacent might belong to Ul Qoma. The citizens of each city must ignore the existence of the other entirely (`unsee' it - strikingly Orwellian neologism?); if they don't, then they are said to have committed a crime called `Breach', and weird things happen to them. Principally the novel concerns a by-the-numbers `extreme crime' detective called Borlú, who's tasked with investigating the murder of a Bes'el woman by a citizen from Ul Qoma; all the while Borlú becomes more and more obsessed with pseudo-academic theories that a third city called `Orciny' exists - functioning entirely unseen between the other two.
Borlú narrates in the first-person past tense, and in essence he acts as the mouth-piece of the reader by expressing confusion at the book's bizarre goings-on on the reader's behalf. Large chunks of the narrative can be baffling, and the book only really comes-together at its shocking dénouement. Compounding this tonal confusion is China Miéville's very slow reveal of made up, idiosyncratic terminology, which has to be gradually decoded by the reader as no gloss or moments of explication are provided - but rather than being frustrating, this refusal to elucidate contributes to a sense of immersion and authenticity that's so often lacking in other, less delicate sci-fi where heavy-handed exposition is problematic.
The cast is drawn competently, though occasionally it does veer into clichés of genre-type (feisty side-kick, cantankerous police chief, unidentified telephone informant etc.) and this is a shallowness of character that can't always be hidden by complex plotting and non-stop action, but I'm willing to let this pass because the real shining stars of the novel (the most developed `protagonists', if you want to be poncy about it) are the cityscapes of Bes'el and Ul Qoma. Miéville takes his (admittedly brilliant) idea of the inter-meshed cities and really runs with it, augmenting the characteristic cityphilia that he's shown in earlier novels with a fetishistic attention to the physical description of skylines, road layouts, architecture and city administration. Not only does this contribute to a unique and highly original sense of place, but also instils an unnerving feeling of the uncanny, as the cities in The City and The City function more like characters than mere settings. As Borlú moves between the two cities, the very nature of the streets, like arteries of the cities, pulses, flows and shifts - the streets tell lies and trick reader and narrator alike. Simultaneously belonging to two very different cities, the streets are alarmingly schizophrenic and threatening: they display a shifty inconsistency that creates an unsettling cognitive dissonance, an effect created by Miéville's unashamedly intricate, complicated prose. The permanent danger is that Borlú will slip-up and commit Breach, and I was torn between simultaneously wanting to see this happen, while also wanting the best for our narrator (who, remember, really functions as the mouth and eyes of the reader - a point of view character in this strange but familiar (hence ` uncanny') world).
So, The City and The City is a dark, violent and complicated hybrid of genre types that functions as a celebration of the idea of `city' rather than of the detective as moral paradigm or of the crime as grotesque indulgence (a trap so many hardboiled novels fall into). It's grounded by a rigorous attention to police procedure and a penchant for unexpectedly naturalistic dialogue (you'll read lots of `ums' and repetitions of colloquialisms/idioms: `you know' etc.) that weights the novel into a quasi real-world context when it could so easily have floated into the realms of the purely fantastical. This teasing of the fantastic can, however, be a source of frustration. The more outré, sci-fi aspects are dangled like the proverbial carrot in front of both reader and protagonist alike: the hidden `third city', the possibility of advanced technology, the strange crime that is `Breach' - these are all narrative threads that are im-rather than ex-plicit, and it's demonstrable of Miéville's skill that, even when he's writing minor fantasy, he can suggest the most head-spinning weirdnesses. But readers looking for the out-and-out bizarro creations of his earlier novels might find The City and The City lacking.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding,
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This review is from: The City & The City (Paperback)Some reviews have portrayed this as a murder mystery set against the backdrop of two very unusually interlaced cities. I'd turn this around and say it's a mystery about the nature of the cities, set against the backdrop of a murder investigation.
I was initially frustrated that I couldn't quite grasp what was going on with the cities, then after a while I thought I understood, and then later came to have that understanding subverted. In the end I was just gobsmacked by the audacity of the whole thing. This reminded me a little of The Bridge by Iain Banks, in terms of there being a mystery in the book which is not explicitly pointed out.
This is a very good book, I really enjoyed it.
52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dystopian Police Procedural,
This review is from: The City & The City (Paperback)The City & The City is the latest by an author who has garnered quite a reputation these past years for being original, insightful and basically pretty damn good. The City & The City comes loaded with plaudits, A Nebula Award nomination, and enough cover quotes to ensure even the most insecure author feels the love. Miéville is even compared to George Orwell and Franz Kafka...
Now here's a thing, with all this adulation from the critics you might think I'd be extremely keen to read this book, right? Well the truth is I've wanted to read something of China's work for a while, but I was by no means certain I'd like it. I couldn't help but wonder if it might all be drearily pretentious. You know the kind of book? Difficult to read, self-indulgent drivel, that our cultural tastemakers often effuse over. The ones that leave us mere mortals - who're only looking for a good read - feeling inadequate on account of our inability to invoke the same level of excitement for them. The quote from Socialist Review on the cover also made me groan a bit. Knowing China's politics - was this going to be a disguised party manifesto?
So a little apprehensive and ready to stand against the wave of support for this book if need be, I plunged in, and bugger me - It IS really good! My initial reservations turned out to be completely unfounded. I didn't even mind that it's told in the first person, which as a point of preference is not by favourite narrative perspective.
Inspector Tyador Borlú is the person telling this tale, an investigator in a specialist division of the Bes'el City Police. Borlú is assigned to investigate the murder of a foreign woman, whose body is discovered abandoned by his officers. From the outset there are unaswered questions regarding the identity of the woman, and her activities in Bes'el. As the investigation unfolds, it becomes apparent that Borlú is being drawn into a mysterious series of events; the investigation of which both threatens his life, and his understanding of his country.
Bes'el City is an invented City-State, located it would seem somewhere in Eastern Europe. It exists in exactly the same physical space as another city, Ul-Qoma. The streets, the buildings; all the features of the two cities would appear part of the one city to an outsider, although they are internationally different political entities. To their respective inhabitants they're entirely different worlds. They have different customs, taboos, dress, levels of affluence, language inflections etc and what's more they have developed a culture of not seeing the other - literally. They actively seek to avoid noticing their neighbours from the other city, even if they're standing in the same street, they're in another country. To fail to acknowledge the strict protocols associated with these customs is Breach, and summons a third and mysterious entity by that name to dispense justice.
The story follows Borlu's investigations in a noirish manner, and this novel has many of the essential characteristics of that sub-genre. It is a kind of dystopian police procedural. The reader is a witness to Borlu's investigation in a manner which slowly reveals the nature of his reality, and the challenges to that reality as fresh details of the case emerge and the plot develops. The murder trail leads Borlú out of the confines of Bes'el, into Ul-Qoma and beyond, not just physically but mentally as well.
This is a book about perception and about identity, about cultural indoctrination, and the nurturing of exclusivity and otherness for larger social and economic ends. It's also a tale of misinformation and conspiracy. At times I was reminded of Balkan identities, the Palestine/Israel situation, and Turkish politics with its national obsession for the Deep State. Yes it's political, but not I think in any narrow ideological sense. It can take a little while to become familiar with the dreamlike landscape of Miéville's setting, and to appreciate the fullness of the idea he's constructed. Once realised it's difficult not to be awed by his inventiveness, and marvel at its execution.
This novel has a head full of ideas, but in its heart beats a classic detective story. Crucially, it never forgets to be entertaining. There may not be as much Sci-Fi/Fantasy as some might hope, but there's plenty of vision. Bravo Mr Miéville! I for one am now converted, you fully deserve your plaudits.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Amazing imagination, disappointing delivery,
This review is from: The City & The City (Paperback)Two cities, Beszel, a decaying soviet style society and Ul Qoma, near Eastern in style. The body of a murdered young girl found in the vandalised playground of a sink estate by Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad [for some reason, annoyingly, Amazon doesn't seem to support accents, but there are acute accents over the first e in Mieville, the second in Beszel and the u in Borlu, which give an indication of the slavic slant of the language of the latter two]. But all is not as it seems, and Mieville's detective story is, Borlu says of his case on page 9, 'considerably more Byzantine than it had initially appeared'. I won't give anything away, but the reference to Byzantium, also known as Istanbul and Constantinople over its history, as well as the meaning of 'byzantine' itself give clues to just how much of a ride Mieville takes you on. Brilliantly conceived and written
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't read any reviews, just read the book!,
This review is from: The City & The City (Paperback)This is a great book, a really exciting read. You must read it, but do yourself a favour and don't read anything about the book before you read the book itself. Don't read the blurb on the back of the book, don't read any interviews with China Mieville, and definitely don't read any reviews. Stop reading about it right this instant!
29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worlds apart,
Since then,(2005), he has not released another adult novel and so it is with some hope & no little trepidation that his latest is received.
Set in the city of Beszel we are quickly introduced to a murder victim & the inspector investigating the crime. At the same time we learn that Beszel shares its space with another city called Ul Quoma. The two seem to somehow share the same space but have a long standing hatred of one another and so have invented a whole litany of rules and regulations to ensure the other is ignored by it's residents & anyone who fails to follow the rules is rapidly dealt with by the all seeing & deadly 'Breach'.
Confused? You will be as Mieville refuses to let out much information at any one time and keeps his characters under tight wraps. Just how did the girl die & why? Why does no one want to deal with the problem? For every answer given another question arises and this is where the author really finds himself without any modern day peers. He is able to confuse & disorient his reader while at the same time weaving an increasingly powerful aura of exotic mystery and suspense. The two cities are placed, not into some new fictional world or even Mievilles already existing one from his previous novels, rather they exist in our world with the beauty of mundane everyday actions like tourism given a fascinating slant for those wishing to visit Beszel. It's our history but with the 2 cities histories blended and subtly distorting what we know.
This author excels when lending an air of menace and strangeness to his work. The sense of foreboding is always there, you struggle in vain to see why, but it's ever present and drives the reader on to the next page and chapter.
This really is a return to form for this writer and that means this is a riveting and slightly confusing & scary ride with barely a moment to pause. You won't necessarily follow everything all the time but then you're not meant to. Instead this is best enjoyed as a sort of hypnagogic experience where what you see seems so real but in fact reality is just out of reach. The ending is no let down and offers an explanation most will not have considered.
If you enjoyed his previous novels then this will definitely not disappoint. If you are new to his work then this is a great introduction to an author whose ability to paint new worlds and alternate realities is of the very highest order.
An excellent book that bears repeated reading.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Parallel lives,
This review is from: The City & The City (Paperback)The City and The City is a meaningful and important exploration of cultural and social difference and how we learn to exclude others.The premise of the book - 2 cultures inhabiting the same physical space and having to learn not to see each other and not to recognise one another's existence could be applied to Jerusalem, Belfast and many other cities where conflict and division have become the norm. Frighteningly it could also be applied to most cities we live in - for those of us who are not drug users or involved in gangs, the violence that damages and often kills is almost invisible. We don't move in the same circles as the drug dealers or the psychopaths.....until we bump up against the artificial borders and experience at first hand how the other half lives.I think that China Mieville is a gifted social analyst and says important things about our society - more people need to read him! This book inspired me to curate an eponymous exhibition featuring the work of international artists who are women and to investigate their response to 'The City' as a contested space.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging in the best possible way!,
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This review is from: The City & The City (Paperback)This is, quite categorically, the very best book I have read this year. I'm normally a quick reader, but this took me much longer than usual - not because it was boring, but because it was completely satisfying, like a very good meal, and you wanted to take your time over it!
It is a crime novel that isn't a crime novel, SF that isn't really, fantasy that is so entirely true and consistent and familiar that I believed in it implicitly. In fact, it is many genres and none - Mieville plays with genre - and all the better for that. The narrator is engaging, the lessons this book teaches - and there are lessons - are never heavy handed, just part of an enthralling, original and sometimes mind blowing story. The setting will disturb you and challenge you (it gave me the most bizarre dreams I have ever had) but it will also stay with you afterwards.
Don't blame me, though, if you try it and find that you don't like it. I suspect this is the Marmite of publishing, and you'll either love it or hate it. I loved it from beginning to end - and that's another important point. The ending was superb!
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointing book from one of my favourite authors.,
As a premise for a book it was promising - a murder to be solved in two cities which geographically overlap but whose seperateness is ensured by some vast, abstract entity called Breach. The inhabitants of one city, though they can be walking down the same street, must not notice or interact with the inhabitants of the other. So far so good.
But the book itself was a bit dissatisfying. It was never really explained why so much time and effort was expended on solving the possible murder of one girl, when it was clear that the police resources were overstreched and in demand. The protagonist's motivation was a little unclear. But more importantly the thing with the two-cities-for-the-price-of-one started as quite a clever premise but quickly became irritating as it was never really fully developed. My favourite thing about Mieville's writing is the way that the cities take on a life of their own, whether it's the London of 'King Rat' or the, uh, un London of 'Un Lun Dun', or the New Crobuzon of 'Perdido Street Station' and the rest. This city had very little description devoted to it, which was kind of a shame because it made the two different cities difficult to visualise. Maybe I'm thick, here, but I needed some sort of pronunciation guide too.
There was alienation aplenty, and lots of interesting subtext which I'm not going to analyse because I'm not an Eng Lit student any more. Philosophically it was probably quite an interesting book. It lacks the overt politicism of most of Mieville's other stuff (I think that's a bad thing, but I guess it depends on your preferences). I just didn't think much to the actual story.
Now I'm going to sit and re-read 'The Scar', and hope that China Mieville writes another good book soon.
31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent prose and concept, but a distinct lack of soul,
As some other reviews have noted, Miéville actually requested an embargo on revealing the key premise that underpins The City and the City, to avoid ruining the reading experience. Given that the book has now been released, I've no idea whether this embargo is still in place. In any case, I don't really have the patience to try and explain the premise (it's certainly not something you come across every day - some will see it as ridiculous, others as brilliant). It will suffice to say that one of the main themes of the novel is borders and identity, and this plays a crucial role in proceedings.
Intriguing premise aside, the actual plot boils down to a reasonably typical crime storyline: Inspector Tyador Borlú is called on to investigate the murder of a young woman in the fictional eastern European city of BesYel. It soon becomes apparent that sinister forces are at work, and that to follow the murder trail Borlú will have to cross physical and psychological borders, as his investigation leads him to the more exotic city of Ul Qoma, BesYel's neighbour and political rival.
Miéville has already proven himself immensely skilled at portraying urban environments (Perdido Street Station is probably the novel that springs to most fans' minds, but check out his short story The Tain as well). His talent for bringing cities to life and understanding of what gives them their characteristics - their soul - is on display here in full force. The cities of BesYel and Ul Qoma - so close together, yet so distant in their respective personalities - are well drawn and developed. Miéville's prose and dialogue (excellent, as always) is largely responsible, creating two distinct atmospheres - BesYel is wonderfully bleak and almost desolate at times, while Ul Qoma is beguilingly exotic.
With a typically innovative premise that offers so much potential, two detailed, atmospheric settings, and noir-soaked, stylish prose, the stage is set for a fantastic novel. Unfortunately (perhaps even surprisingly), it doesn't happen. Two main issues hampered my enjoyment of the book, and ultimately cancel out the fine work that Miéville's done with the premise and setting.
The first is the characters - they're shallow. Disappointingly so. Take the protagonist, Tyador Borlú. At the end of novel, we know precious little more about him than we do at the start. In terms of background, there's just not enough to flesh him out - he lives alone, sees two different woman that are not aware of each other. That's it. Sure, we see his various qualities, but for me he just wasn't a character that interested me, he had no vices or obvious flaws. There was no real personal struggle or sacrifice involved in the resolution of the plot. The same problem arises with the other major characters - they're fleshed out just enough to give them some sort of personality, but again there's no depth and no real connection between any of them. Perhaps this was deliberate, to further the isolated, paranoid nature of the setting, but it didn't work for me - I just didn't really care about any of them. Compared to the various personalities encountered in The Scar, the characterisation in The City and the City comes across as bland.
The other bone of contention I have is with the plot. While it kept me guessing, events unfolded so slowly that I struggled to maintain my interest. Events did eventually come to a head late on, but I would have liked more urgency throughout the novel, a bit more action, a bit more tension. Too much of the time Borlú just seemed to plod around talking to members of various political groups, with precious little of interest happening. Perhaps this is a realistic take on a police investigation, but it doesn't make for exciting reading. I was also rather underwhelmed by the eventual revelations as to who was behind the murder. While there was one good twist, I couldn't even remember who one of the main villains was - I think he appeared in one scene about 200 pages before, a fleeting appearance, and then disappeared again until the end.
You can level other criticisms at The City and the City - some of my fellow bloggers, for example, remained unconvinced by the behaviour of the citizens and the actual practicalities involved in maintaining the boundaries between the cities and their separate identities. While I did find it hard to suspend my belief at times, this wasn't really a problem for me - at least, not nearly as much as the lack of characterisation and the slow plot.
Verdict: The City and the City hasn't changed my opinion of China Miéville - I still believe he's hugely important to the genre, and that as an innovator he's without peer. It has made me realise, however, that perhaps he's better off sticking to secondary world fiction, where he's able to draw upon the full force of his imagination. The City and the City, while far from a bad novel, is ultimately just a pale imitation of the brilliance that can be found in the likes of The Scar. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the two, given their differences, but ultimately a novel - whatever genre its in - needs to have strong characters to succeed, and in my view this is where The City and the City falls short.
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The City & The City by China Mieville (Paperback - 6 May 2011)