Wednesday, 6 May 2009

‘The City & The City’ – China Mieville (Pan MacMillan)


Pretty much all of my reading is either fantasy, science fiction or horror but every now and then I like to break out and go for something completely different. This can sometimes backfire spectacularly (the Mills & Boon experiment was doomed to failure right from the start...) but more often than not I find something that I really get into. Raymond Chandler’s ‘Philip Marlowe’ books were one of these finds and I loved the mixture of atmospheric mean streets and a hero who didn’t know what he had got himself into but was just trying to do the right thing. I love finding noir tales like these in fantasy (one of the reasons I got into ‘Nights of Villjamur’ the way I did) and I was really excited to hear that China Mieville was writing something along these lines. I’ve been a big fan of his, ever since ‘Perdido Street Station’, and was keen to see what he had come up with. One of the things I’ve found out about Mieville’s work is that it’s never quite what you expect and this was certainly the case for ‘The City & The City’...

Inspector Tyador Borlu has come across more than his fair share of dead bodies in his work for the Extreme Crime Squad, in the Eastern European city of Beszel, but there is a lot more to this latest case than he realises. The murder of a student shouldn’t lead to mysterious phone calls and interference from those who should be helping him... As Borlu continues his investigations it becomes clear that they are leading him to the one city on Earth that is as strange as his own, a border unlike any other will take him into the city of Ul Qoma and face to face with some startling revelations...

Other reviewers have mentioned an embargo around the concept underpinning ‘The City & The City’, I’m not sure if this is still in place (as the book should be out by now) but I’m going avoid going into it in too much detail so as not to spoil it for those who don’t already know. Suffice it to say that I think that it’s a really clever idea that’s handled very well over the course of the book regarding the situations that it brings up and the things that it gets you thinking about. I’ve never seen a chase scene written in quite such a manner (as it was in ‘The City & The City’) and the unique circumstances add a level of real tension to the scene. Borlu is in danger on more than one level and this is made abundantly clear. The unique way in which the villain seeks to avoid capture (right at the very end) is brilliant and really left me hanging on for the conclusion.

Adam, over at The Wertzone, had an issue with the book in that he says that “neither the world nor humanity at large operate in the way that Mieville needs them to for the conceit to work”. I can see where he’s coming from but I guess what I’d say is that the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma (and their inhabitants) operate in exactly the way they need to for Mieville’s conceit to work. The setting may be contemporary but it’s really only a background to what is being played out in the cities themselves.
The problem I did have though was that there was nothing to suggest what had caused Beszel and Ul Qoma to be the way that they were. I could buy into the fact that they had to behave in a certain way, towards each other, but the way in which this was executed really needed to be underpinned by something outlining why this had come to pass. This niggled at me, a bit, but there were plenty of other things going on that more than made up for this.

‘The City & The City’ may be all about the situations arising from it’s central concept but it’s also a detective story (set against contrasting European cities) that kept me guessing the whole way through by throwing up questions that kept me reading. There’s also a real energy apparent in Borlu’s relentless pursuit of the truth and it’s infectious, I wanted to find out the truth just as much as he did! Mieville may have written a contemporary detective novel but he hasn’t ignored his fantasy roots and this is evident in the conspiracy theories that decorate the streets of Beszel and Ul Qoma, adding another layer of friction and paranoia to cities that already have more than their fair share. It’s a good mix and the beauty is that it all makes sense when the reader is given the whole picture right at the end of the book. The plot may be slow and methodical but it’s deliberately so, Mieville takes great care to make sure that everything fits together. The only piece that is missing (for me) is what led to Beszel and Ul Qoma being the way they are...

‘The City & The City’ is an engrossing detective novel that is unmistakably China Mieville in every sense. I’m not sure that it’s my favourite of his books but there’s enough there for ‘The City and The City’ to stand proudly alongside everything else that he’s written.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

5 comments:

ediFanoB said...

From time to time I read books beyond fantasy and The City & The City seems to be a great choice. I think I can't eithstand after reading your good and informative review.
So far I read Un Lun Dun and I enjoyed it very much.

Cara said...

I've enjoyed most of his books and I'm definitely going to get it after reading your review ^__^ good one!

Hagelrat said...

I've recently started with Raymond Chandler and am hooked. Marlowe is fantastic, a pre cursor to Dresden perhaps? Tall, dark out of his depth. :)

Graeme Flory said...

Hagelrat - Most male UF characters have more than a hint of Marlowe in them (I think) and that's the reason I keep going back for more Dresden and Castor tales... :o)

Cara - If you've enjoyed Mieville's other books then I reckon you'll like this one too. Hope you enjoy it!

ed - Hope you enjoy it as well :o)

Amberleigh said...

Thanks for the great review! As has happened more than once, your review prompted me to read this book for myself, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks!