'The City & the City', by China Mièville

'The City & The City', available from Amazon.

3 stars for 'The City & The City'

In the fictional city of Besźel, the body of a young woman, a foreign student, is found abandoned in an alley. Clearly the victim of murder, the case is assigned to Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad. His investigation quickly uncovers that the young woman seemed to be linked with a controversial political movements in both Besźel, and its neighbouring city, Ul Qoma – and that, in order to continue his investigation, he will be required to leave his native city to work with the authorities of a foreign land. However, crossing the border is not so simple, as the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma geographically exist in the same location – overlapping each other in a very real and literal sense.

What would seem, at first glance, to be a straightforward crime drama is ultimately revealed to rest on a singularly bizarre premise – that the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, so different from each other in appearance and culture, could somehow exist in the same location. Residents of each city, raised to see the delicate balance between the two as normal, are taught from a young age to recognise the difference between the two cities, and to carefully 'unsee' anything which may slip over from the other. Willingly, or even accidentally, interacting with the other city is considered to be a serious crime, referred to as breaching, in each city – and anyone who commits an act of breach falls under the jurisdiction of a mysterious, and seemingly alien, entity referred to simply as Breach, who enforces the border between the two cities.

Borlú's investigation takes him from the run-down and grimy streets of his native Besźel, to the glittering streets of Ul Qoma, a city very much on the rise. Following the trail of the young foreign student, he is drawn into contact with fringe elements of each city who wish to see the two united, as well as the rumoured legends of a third city, Orciny, that exists in the spaces between the two – and, ultimately, into direct contact with Breach itself.

The right way to sell a bizarre, or potentially absurd, premise is arguably not to draw attention to it, but to play it straight – to present it to the reader with conviction and honesty, and trust in their willingness to accept it. And this is something that China Mièville does remarkably well. From the very beginning, the reader is invited to see the two cities not from the point of view of an outsider, but from a native. The reader's entry-point into the story is Inspector Tyador Borlú himself, a lifelong resident of Besźel – and, through his eyes, everything from the need to carefully 'unsee' anything that may slip over from the other city, to the looming threat of Breach, is presented as though it were a perfectly normal part of daily life. Which, of course, for the native residents of the two cities, it is.

This works so well, in fact, that by the time outsiders do make an appearance, their inability to understand and abide by the rules of the two cities will likely seems as strange and frustrating to the reader as it does to the natives of each city. It also makes The City & the City one of the most bizarrely entertaining books I have read for quite some time. The sheer strangeness of the premise alone should be enough of a draw for any fan of urban fantasy – though, beyond that, there is also compelling mystery of a young woman who may not be as innocent as she first seems.

Unfortunately, as interesting as the central premise of the tale is (and, as well drawn as the characters are), there is still the matter of the central mystery. At heart,and despite its surreal and strange setting, The City & The City is still essentially a detective story - and, it is in this element of the tale that the story ultimately begins to falter toward the end. As reluctant as I am to spoil the ending of a book that I consider to still be very much worth reading, I still have to say that, when the main antagonist of a detective story is not only the person you least expect, but a person you are given absolutely no reason to suspect, it can only be a source of frustration for the reader.

© 2011 Dallas Matier

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