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March 9, 2009 / schulerbooks

The City and The City, by China Miéville

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Somewhere in the world — perhaps in the weird middle-ground where Europe “ends” and the Middle East “begins” — is a place where two cities sit, not side-by-side, but one alongside the other. They are intertwined in space like two shifting thoughts, caught up within a fevered dream of dissonant architecture and shared but uncertain history. One is Besźel, caught in a slow, crumbling spiral of almost East European dissolution, and the other is Ul Qoma, waking up to the possibilities of the new era.

The citizens of each city go about their business and their lives, carefully unseeing one another as they walk, drive and play within a space they somehow share. If they should act as though the two cities were one — crossing over without permission, talking to someone from the other city, or colliding with their car on a “crosshatched” thoroughfare — they commit the crime of Breach. And the mysterious, anonymous forces of Breach will appear to clean up the mess, both swiftly and efficiently — sometimes harshly.

So when the Besź Extreme Crime Squad starts investigating a dead body, and discovers that murder probably took place in Ul Qoma, Inspector Tyador Borlú is thrown into an uncomfortable position. His investigation can only go so far before he runs out of leads on his side, and when an attempt to bring the frighteningly-efficient forces of Breach into the matter fails, he has to go over to the other city — with all the bureaucracy and metaphysical considerations that entails — to catch the culprit. Once there, he and his Ul Quoman “partner” uncover a disturbing possibility: the victim, a headstrong archaeology student, may have found the fabled “third city” that supposedly lies between the two.

And she may have been killed by its agents…

As an author, China Miéville seems to delight in world-building — fashioning intricate, puzzle-box cities for the reader to unlock, one page at a time. His skill in presenting such fantastic locales is without peer, but a common complaint, even amongst fans, is that he puts more care into describing the cities and their strange, secret movements than he does the characters of his stories, or the intricacies of his plots.

But in The City and The City, Miéville has changed his sticks considerably. Gone are the heady, intoxicating rushes of complicated language, the sudden deluges of information, the side-flights to other frames of reference and states of mind, all of which ultimately add to the story but occasionally throw the reader for a real loop. Also gone is the sense of being taken on a weird, epic and idiosyncratic color tour by Clive Barker, Michael Moorcock and Mervyn Peake.

Instead we have a carefully measured — possibly, dare I say it, more mature — story which employs his previous trademarks only sparingly, if at all. This novel is less of a bucking bronco than his other works, and more of a smooth ride whose particulars, rather than peculiars, are what make it memorable.

I will always believe that Perdido Street Station and The Scar are treasures that should be read by anyone who enjoys science fiction and fantasy, but I think The City and The City will bring more fans to Miéville’s increasingly-rich table, especially those who enjoy “exotic” police procedurals. China Miéville’s newest novel is a fantastic, accessible work that shows a mature writer on top of his art, and should be relished in reading.

The City and The City, published by Del Rey, will be out on May 26th, 2009.

– Jim Tremlett, Eastwood

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