Review: The City & The City, China Mieville

I finished China Mieville’s The City & The City days ago, and to be honest, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. The novel begins as an apparent classic crime noir: a woman is found murdered in Beszel, and Inspector Tyador Borlu is called in to investigate. Evidence links the woman to neighbouring city Ul Qoma. Thing is, Beszel and Ul Qoma aren’t geographical neighbours as we are used to. Best I can understand, they overlap somehow, and residents of each city train themselves to un-see people and places from the other city, lest they be charged of Breach and taken away. Borlu’s investigation therefore isn’t so much about a murder as it is about the two cities, and the mythical third city that is rumoured to be between them.

The City & The City isn’t a fun thriller to read on the subway or before bed. The murder mystery is certainly interesting, embroiling Borlu in politics, history and legends that may turn out to be true. But it’s far from an easy read, at least for me, and I had to set aside a few hours to sit, read and work things out. My sister and I then spent even more time discussing the relationship between Beszel and Ul Qoma, and trying to figure out the implications of this relationship. The resolution to the mystery itself turns out to be fairly simple — not simplistic, by any means, but certainly nothing as mind-blowing as the political landscape Mieville depicts — and certainly, it’s possible to read this as a straightforward crime novel.

But I think it’s worth quite a bit more thought than that, a bit more of a puzzle than who the murderer is. The more I got into the way Beszel and Ul Qoma work, the more the world in this novel became familiar. My sister suggested that physically/geographically, Beszel and Ul Qoma might actually be the same city, with the distinction between them only psychological, and, more importantly, willed. The further I read, the more that made sense to me, though Mieville certainly opens the nature of these cities up to debate.

City makes you think, in much the same way as Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness makes you think. It’s a world absolutely nothing like our own, yet it’s also strangely familiar. I’m not sure if I could say I enjoyed it, but it was definitely worth the read.

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