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May 29, 2009

Filed under: fiction»reviews»mieville

The City and the City

"You think any of the foreigners don't breach?" Buidze said, and leaned in towards us, spreading his fingers. "All we can get from them's a bit of politeness, right? And when you get a bunch of young people together, they're going to push it. Maybe it's not just looks. Did you always do what you're told? But these are smart kids."

He sketched maps on the table with his fingertips. "Bol Ye'an crosshatches here, here, and in the park it's in here and here. And yeah, over at the edges in this direction, it even creeps into Beszel total. So when this lot get drunk or whatever, don't they egg each other on to go stand in a crosshatch bit of the park? And then, who knows if they don't, maybe standing still there, without a single world, without even moving, cross over into Beszel, then back again? You don't have to take a step to do that, not if you're in a crosshatch. All here." Tapped his forehead. "No one can prove shit. Then maybe next time when they're doing that they reach down, grab a souvenir, straighten back up into Ul Qoma with a rock from Beszel or something. If that's where they were when they picked it up, that's where it's from, right? Who knows? Who could prove it?"

China Mieville seems to have a soft spot for cities. He wrote three brilliant books about the bizarre city-state of New Crobuzon. Then he took a break to do a kid's book about a hidden version of London. He released a collection of short stories that included such topics as feral streets and monsters hidden in the noise of urban life. His new book, The City and the City, continues the pattern--but it does so in a way that Mieville fans probably won't expect.

The City and the City is set in Beszel and Ul Qoma, two Eastern European cities which are, in fact, one city. They're located physically in the same space, but separated by cultural and psychological adaptations that force citizens of one city to "unsee" the other. They are, as Mieville calls them, "topolgangers" of each other, cross-hatched and intermixed but never actually mixing. Contact between the cities is forbidden, except at specified borders, and anyone violating that rule is punished by a nebulous authority known only as Breach.

The story is told by Inspector Tyador Borlu, a policeman in Beszel. Unraveling the murder of an American archaeology student who had been living in Ul Qoma, Borlu follows leads to the other city and back when Breach refuses to get involved, eventually being pulled into an international conflict--as well as the struggle between his native "blind spots" and his investigative eye. As with all Mieville's work, this is Weird Fiction at its best: working both as an examination of urban consciousness and as an enjoyable mystery novel.

In tone, however, The City and the City is something unexpected. Unlike the richly-textured, gothic landscape of the Bas Lag books, Borlu's narration is spare and relatively chilly. If anything, it reads to me as greatly influenced by Peake's Gormenghast books, for which Mieville has great admiration. Like those stories, the setting is exotic without involving any actual supernatural or magical elements--not quite realism, but not quite fantasy, and nothing so fuzzy as "magical" realism. There are also elements of Calvino, particularly in the way Mieville playfully imagines the intersections of his grosstopically-merged cities, and the conspiracy theories that emerge from them.

Ultimately, I enjoyed The City and the City, but I didn't have the strong reaction to it that I've had to Mieville's other writing. I felt like Borlu came across as distant, and not particularly interesting, and the plot had a tendency to drift a bit. For the newcomer to Mieville, this is certainly one of his more accessible works: along with Un Lun Dun, it might be a good starting place for readers who are not quite prepared for the grotesqueries of his earlier books (those who were unprepared for the man-on-scarab sex that opens Perdido Street Station, for example). Myself, I enjoyed the more outlandish aspects of the Bas Lag trilogy, and as a reader I hope more is forthcoming. But I also respect the desire for a writer to strike out in new directions instead of retreading old ground. It's a fine line to walk, and I can't wait to see where Mieville will travel next.

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