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“The City & The City” by China Miéville

REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS! In fact, there’s no way you can really look at the book in much detail without giving away the central premise, and I’d urge any other reviewers reading to bear that in mind. I’ve tried to limit them myself.


I can’t find my collection of Borges’ Labyrinths, which is going to annoy the hell out of me, because I wanted to re-read the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.

In the story, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön… One of the major themes of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is that ideas ultimately manifest themselves in the physical world and the story is generally viewed as a parabolic discussion of Berkeleian idealism — and to some degree as a protest against totalitarianism… “Tlön, Uqbar…” has the structure of a detective fiction set in a world going mad.

I can’t help but wonder if this was the influence behind the wonderful new China Miéville novel The City & The City.

Set in present-day Beszel, a city located on the edge of Europe (it feels like somewhere near Turkey) Inspector Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad is called to the scene of a murder of a young woman, her body left discarded under a mattress in a local estate. Following the form of a police procedural, naturally Borlú tries to piece together the life of this unknown woman. He soon discovers more than one name for her, and that she had some interest some of the dangerous underground political groups. Here we learn there are nationalists and those seeking unification with the neighbouring city, Ul Qoma. Once identified, it turns out that the victim was actually a young American PhD student conducting research at the university in Ul Qoma. But progress is really made when Borlú identifies a vehicle that carried her body to the scene of the crime. He deduces that for her to have ended up in Beszel, from Ul Qoma, this vehicle must have breached. Breaching is where the fantastical elements kick in, and where novel gets really, really cool. But to discuss it would mean be big spoilers, so I won’t go into detail.

Because Borlú suspects Breach has been invoked, he attempts to get this organisation on board—they are so thorough and omnipotent, they may well be able to successfully find the killer of the woman. But after the authorities of both cities deny him this, he is invited to cross the border to the city of Ul Qoma to where the investigation can continue.

Gone is the baroque style usually associated with Miéville’s work. This is nothing like the Bas-Lag novels, so don’t expect that. It is written in first person anyway, which inhibits that kind of flair considerably.

…I turned back to the night-lit city and this time I looked and saw its neighbour. Illicit but I did. Who hadn’t done that at times? There were gasrooms I shouldn’t see, chambers dangling ads, tethered by skeletal metal frames. On the street at least one of the passers-by, I could tell by the clothes, the colours, the walk, was not in Beszel and I watched him anyway.

The conversation within is how people might really speak, and isn’t traditional book dialogue. For me, the whole mood was in the style of independent European cinema. I could see the curious colour treatments, long brooding shots, the intense acting, restrained minimalism and deep pauses. The world-building, as you’d imagine, is constructed perfectly—one of the pleasures is thinking how real these artificial cities are, with a culture that slots very neatly alongside our own present day one.

All in all, this a restrained Miéville analysing the psychological states, existential positioning, the fear of the unknown with regards to being watched. The philosophy of Berkeley comes to mind, via Borges, notions of seeing and being seen, the states of mind that influence this. And I can’t help but feel the purpose of the crosshatching also demonstrates something else—about borders between certain nations. Divisions, separations, the things that stop us from seeing. But you have to read the book to understand all this.

Put all that aside and you still have a very smart and elegant crime novel that just so happens to utilize a psychological border. It is a change of direction, certainly, and one that might very well push Miéville into post-genre mainstream success.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

11 replies on ““The City & The City” by China Miéville”

I’m really looking forward to this. Miéville’s Scar and Perdido Street Station are fantastic books and this sounds very interesting. Thanks for the review, you’ve knocked my enthusiasm up a notch!

As much as rabid curiosity is dragging me toward it, I cannot bring myself to read the review simply because I can’t even contemplate the possibility of letting spoilers detracting from my complete enjoyment of ‘The City & The City’ – I feel somehow sullied and cheated by the few teasers I’ve read on Amazon and so on. Sorry Mark, sure it’s a very insightful reading, but this is Miéville and I’m taking absolutely no chances!

By the way, if you’re looking for a good Borges collection (OK I read that far before making myself stop) then this one’s the great:
The complete collected fictions, apart from ‘Imaginary Beings’ although I’m not sure in exactly what category that falls anyway.

I wasn’t convinced by it, Mark.

Ironically, for a story about cities which sort of expand in dimensions they shouldn’t – fractal, like? – I found the whole thing flat. I think the characterisation was problematic – the protagonist was that kind of European world-weary cop, the bureaucrat who worries at a problem bigger than he realises, who is hardly compelling (as well as somewhat cliched) to follow about, especially since there wasn’t much else to him. While every other character he meets was quite sketchy. And as for Breach – Breach I never really understood. Both powerful and impotent at the same time. If Mieville was making a subtle point about psychological states it didn’t convince me as a device in the story.

There was also a great deal in the second half of what you tend to find in bad crime stories: exposition via dialogue, or ‘why I dun it, officer …’

That said, the two cities and their differences, the idea of it, some of the writing, the languages, the metaphor, the fact that he’s doing something so different is all laudable.

And I can’t think of anything quite like it around at the moment.

Thanks for sharing, Mark. If you still worry about the spoilers – don’t. 😉

Colin, I think there is nothing worse than a novel that everyone likes. In fact, your comment made me feel more impatient about the book than any of the positive opinions. LOL

I just finished The City & The City (could not put it down), and while it was different from Perdido Street Station and The Scar, it was to me pure Mieville: his ability to render cities and his tremendous imagination. I started to say the C&C was less fantastic that PDS and Scar, but I don’t think it is.

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