Book: The City & the City

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The City & the City

Author: China Miéville
Publisher: Del Rey Books

When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.

Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own. This is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen. His destination is Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, and struggling with his own transition, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of rabid nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them and those they care about more than their lives.

What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.

New York Times bestselling author China Miéville delivers his most accomplished novel yet, an existential thriller set in a city unlike any other–real or imagined. Casting shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984, The City & the City is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.


The city is Beszel, a rundown metropolis on the eastern edge of Europe. The other city is Ul Qoma, a modern Eastern European boomtown, despite being a bit of an international pariah. What the two cities share, and what they don’t, is the deliciously evocative conundrum at the heart of China Mieville’s The City and the City. Mieville is well known as a modern fantasist (and urbanist), but from book to book he’s tried on different genres, and here he’s fully hard-boiled, stripping down to a seen-it-all detective’s voice that’s wonderfully appropriate for this story of seen and unseen. His detective is Inspector Tyador Borlu, a cop in Beszel whose investigation of the murder of a young foreign woman takes him back and forth across the highly policed border to Ul Qoma to uncover a crime that threatens the delicate balance between the cities and, perhaps more so, Borlu’s own dissolving sense of identity. In his tale of two cities, Mieville creates a world both fantastic and unsettlingly familiar, whose mysteries don’t end with the solution of a murder. —Tom Nissley

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The City & the City is a stand-alone tale, set outside the cosmos for which Miéville has received the most acclaim, his Bas-Lag universe. This earlier series illustrated—and in fact pretty much defined—the type of fiction known as “New Weird.”

Noted for its sense of radical estrangement and in-your-face bizarreness, the New Weird always faces a couple of hurdles in its conquest of the reader. First, too much oddity begins, paradoxically, to pall and seem stale. When all is fantastic, nothing is. Secondly, each bit of outrageousness demands to be topped, resulting in fiction that gets progressively louder and louder, within each book and from book to book inside the genre.

Interstitial fiction, however, salts naturalism and verisimilitude with a calculated and unpredictable leavening of the unreal, producing a continually oscillating mix of homey and alien that is more subtle and insidious. (But which also risks seeming wan and twee at its worst.)

Luckily for the reader, Miéville’s previous experience with the rigorous and exacting brutalism of the New Weird allows him to keep a steady hand on his interstital tiller, so that he steers an undeviating course between the comfortingly familiar and the upsettingly strange.

The City & the City starts out as a Ruritanian police procedural (cue Avram Davidson’s The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy). Somewhere in Middle Europe lies the city-state of Besźel—naturally not to be found on any map in your conventional atlas, although Besźel slots neatly into contemporary global affairs. Van Morrison made a tour not long ago, after all, and Canada and the USA send foreign aid and investors.

In these vividly echt-Mitteleuropan streets, we encounter our narrator and protagonist, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. His current case: the murder of an unidentified young woman, with the help of his assistant, the spunky and occasionally abrasive and foul-mouthed Lizbyet Corwi. (Curiously enough, the affectionately thorny relationship between the two cops recalls that between Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, in Brian Bendis’s Powers graphic novels, another interstitial outing.) Borlú ’s investigation faces the standard hurdles: uncooperative witnesses; false leads; pigheaded bureaucrats and unsympathetic superiors; dangerous perps; nutcases and flakes; the Inspector’s own conflicted emotions. As police procedurals go, Miéville’s venture is competent and engaging, but unexceptional.

But gradually, through subtle contextual allusions—avoiding entirely the dreaded authorial info-dump—the essential fantastical nature of the venue begins to assume coherent, startling and dominating shape.

Besźel is overlaid in enigmatic, never-fully-explicated fashion by a sister-state, Ul Qoma, which possesses a distinctly different cultural and political setup. At some point millennia ago, the two states were one. But then came the inexplicable Cleavage, a climacteric both physical and mental. Ever since, the citizens of each “overlapping magisterium” (to contort Stephen Jay Gould’s famous phrase about the separation of science and religion) are prohibited from interacting on a daily basis, even in the slightest fashion. From earliest youth, individuals in Besźel are taught to “unsee” any parallel structures and events and people in Ul Qoma. The citizens of Ul Qoma do likewise. Any accidental or deliberate interaction between the two realms is deemed “breach,” and is punished severely by the near-omnipotent agency of that same name.

And as Borlú gets deeper into his investigation, which involves officially sanctioned travel to Ul Qoma, he finds that the woman’s death threatens the entire ontological and epistemological underpinnings of the ancient system, and also risks bringing Breach down upon his head. Central to the mystery is an apocryphal third city, Orciny, which mythically lives in the interstices between Besźel and Ul Qoam.

Once the whole apparatus is made sufficiently comprehensible (although surprises continue to erupt right up till the end), Miéville juggles both the police procedural aspects and the fantastical aspects of his hybrid narrative with a deft vigor. Borlú‘s consciousness, steeped in this odd tradition of irritably tolerated self-hypnosis and self-deception, becomes as intimately familiar to the reader as his own, and serves as our passport to this strange realm. At the same time, the quotidian details of Borlú’s work and life serve as a mimetic anchor to the reader.

In evoking this alien yet human mentality through sheer immersion, Miéville follows in the footsteps of such science-fictional greats as Robert Silverberg (A Time of Changes); Gene Wolfe (The Book of the New Sun); Samuel Delany (the Return to Nevèrÿ on quartet); and Jeffrey Ford (the Well-Built City trilogy).

His deliberate employment of the twinned cities as a multivalent allegory for almost any polarity the reader cares to name—East & West; Muslim & Christian; religion & science; socialism & capitalism; feeling & logic; tradition & modernity—resonates with such metaphysically surreal and satirical authors as William Burroughs, Zoran Živković and Rupert Thomson, specifically the latter’s Divided Kingdom. And Miéville’s Phildickian messing with perceptions adds yet another layer to the cake.

To compact all this harmoniously into a single book, eschewing purity of any one genre, is the ambitious gameplan of interstitial fiction in general. Given Miéville’s role as a bold and inspirational bellwether in the field, his tacit endorsement of this mode, championed by Delia Sherman et al, is an intriguing move in both his personal career and the development of the field.

But note the harsh lessons for would-be authors of such genre-crossing books conveyed by the subtext. Borlú experiences lack of support and comprehension from everyone around him, battles those who would deny his synthesis or his very right to propose such a merger, and in effect is completely broken down and deracinated before achieving his final transformation.

Whew! That’s a heavy cross for any interstial aspirant to carry. But Miéville makes it all look as easy—and as dangerous—as committing breach. —Paul DiFilippo

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