The City and the city

So I’m back… I apologize for my missingness lately. It’s okay though, it let my FF7 post get a bunch of hits. I’ll be back on the normal schedule from now on. Today, we’ll be talking about one of my favorite authors these days : China Mieville. I recently finished his newest book, The City and The City (the second “the city” is printed backwards on all the covers I’ve seen).

What’s it about? Well without giving too much away, it’s a detective story. Like with Twin Peaks or Veronica Mars, it opens with the murder of an attractive and bright young woman, and a detective needs to figure out all of the questions behind the killing. However, this is a China Mieville novel, so of course it’s much more badass than all that.

The story is set in a completely new fictional world for Mieville. It seems to be roughly in the present day in terms of technology and it even takes place somewhere in normal Europe. The weird part is that it takes place in two parallel cities, called Beszel and Ul-Qoma. These two cities run together and have a very strange “cross-hatched” border system. Their cultures are similar in many ways, but different in many others. For example, some colors and architecture styles are illegal in one city and legal in another.

This is done to keep the cities distinct and separate. There is a mysterious force in play known as “Breach” that steps in and removes anyone who crosses the border between the two cities illegally, or smuggles something from one city to another. Is all of this fantasy logic involved in the murder? You betcha!

The thing is, as weird and detailed as this all sounds… it’s relatively restrained compared to Mieville’s other writings. The supernatural aspects of the story are presented more as a fact of life and they draw way less attention to themselves than in his other work. The “imagination per page” ratio is much lower than something like Perdido Street Station.

That doesn’t mean the book isn’t good though, just that it’s different for him. He clearly has a tremendous respect for the detective story genre. This story follows much of the same basic formula, but has just enough interesting little twists on it. There’s a strange kind of bureaucratic justice system thrown in on top of the already bureaucratic justice system of the two cities that makes the book consistently interesting to read. Mieville has a gift for constantly implying an even bigger degree of “world building” while developing his detailed worlds, and that is totally on display with this novel.

I would recommend this book to the middle of the Venn diagram of detective fiction fans and fantasy fans. Of course, it’s an easy sell to a Mieville fan already, but for anyone else I would recommend checking out one of his other books first. Some will find this one a little too tough to get into, but fans will have no problem with it. Check it out if you’re at all interested.


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July 2009
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