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58 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dystopian Police Procedural, 7 Mar. 2010
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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.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Jun 2012 17:44:22 BDT
I thought exactly the same, reluctant to read it due to too many accolades and concerns about politics - but now I've read it I realised it's just a really very good book, a great read, very enjoyable. It's definitely going in my top 10 favourite books.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Jun 2012 20:42:17 BDT
DR ARI says:
Not enough science fiction? If science fiction is based on the premise, 'what if', this is the most sci fi book I've ever read.
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