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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"The City and the City" by China Mieville (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

China Mieville at Wikipedia
Order The City and the City HERE (US) and HERE (UK)
Watch China Mieville talk about the book

INTRODUCTION: When I hear the name China Mieville, I always think of the genius author that took fantasy by storm with two masterpieces that reshaped the more outlandish parts of it and by their extraordinary success gave commercial viability to a new sub-genre that came to be known as New Weird.

The books in questions are Perdido Street Station and The Scar, and they are my top all time standalone fantasy novels. I reread them quite a few times and I see myself rereading them for a long time to come. The unbridled imagination exhibited in both is just breathtaking.

The third New Crobuzon novel, Iron Council, was a book that I almost hated, though in time I came to view it as a perfect example of the "well written but empty" novel; many people from the sff scene whose opinion I deeply respect told me that "Iron Council" is a masterpiece of novel composition, and while it may be so technically, for me it still remains a soulless book that throws away the rich milieu of New Crobuzon by repetitiveness. I'd rather have a flawed book, warts and all, that I care about than a perfect novel that leaves me cold and wondering why I bothered...

After a YA novel Un Lun Dun, Mr. Mieville returns to the genre with "The City and the City", a police procedural with a twist.

I was both very excited and very apprehensive about this book and indeed both feelings were justified since I found "The City and the City" beautifully written with a great first part, but it fell completely apart for me in the second half and it ultimately came across as another empty book about which I could not care that much.

Fabio Fernandes has reviewed this novel HERE, so check his take for a quite different view China Mieville's latest book.

OVERVIEW: The world of the novel is our world with Internet, cell phones, all the usual countries and one addition - a "dual" city Beszel and Ul Qoma that occupy the same physical space in the sense that they intertwine and even superpose in selected areas known as "crosshatches".

The citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma are trained from birth to "unsee" each other, so they go around ignoring one another even if they are very close physically, while in the crosshatch areas, they dodge one another "unseeingly"; this of course can and does lead to accidents and even "breaches", but then then terrifying super secret organization appropriately called Breach intervenes and the offending parties are whisked away not to be seen again if locals, or deported if visitors.

Anyone wanting to visit Beszel or Ul Qoma needs to take special training courses and pass a test in "unseeing"
and what is appropriate behavior generally. There are rumors of a secret City called Orciny, in the interstices between the two, city that either controls or is at war with Breach depending on interpretation.

In a mostly Ul Qoma area with few Beszel parts there is an archaeological dig where unusual and some say powerful artifacts are dug by a team of mostly Canadian professors and graduate students - for Cold War reasons US still has an embargo of Ul Qoma though it's friendly with Beszel, but in recent times prosperity and foreign money are pouring into Ul Qoma while Beszel is falling behind.

Politically, Beszel is more or less a democracy, but with its kooks, both of the hard nationalist right and of the Unification stripe, while Ul Qoma used to be controlled by an Ataturk or Tito like strongman, but recent leaders have been more liberal.

The main character and narrator is Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad, while constable Corwi of Beszel, and detective Qussim Dhatt of Ul Qoma play important roles too.

David Bowden is an archaeologist that published an once (in) famous book about Orciny alled Between the City and The City which is mildly illegal in both cities, but he has since disavowed his views on the reality of Orciny and lives quietly in Ul Qoma.

A mysterious woman is found murdered in a shabby part of Beszel and when her identity is found, deep connections with the archaeological dig, the past and present of the cities and shady groups in both emerge.

The novel stands at 310 pages divided in 29 chapters taking place in both cities. Borlu narrates and his voice is very convincing as a jaded, world-weary policeman, while the ending wraps up well the main thread of the novel.

Beautiful prose, empty book; an act of prestidigitation by enormous talent Mieville, keeps the balls juggling but barely. This would be my summation of the novel and I will try and explain why.

First the setup of a modern world with all cultural references - Internet, cell phones, Cold War, Harry Potter, Power Rangers, usual countries and cities - except the superposed dual city whose citizens "unsee" each other except when officially visiting and with an all powerful Breach that keeps the order - is barely credible from the start and only the talent of Mr. Mieville keeps it from being utterly preposterous.

Even so and the act falters from time to time. Think "Emperor's New Clothes" on a million person scale, or "brainwashing" on the same scale, and add to this the quite numerous tourists, officials, visiting professionals - and it truly stretches credibility that this dual city can exist outside a book. Yes there are explanations: indoctrination from birth, Breach the organization, tests for foreigners, but still, I truly find it hard to suspend my disbelief especially with human nature the way it is; set in an imaginary land maybe, but in our world, it is very, very hard to take for me. However Mr. Mieville pulls it off by and large and that shows indeed extraordinary writing skills.

Then there is the murder investigation which forms the main thread of the book, and there is where the book fell apart for me. Not that it is badly done or anything, it is just that I had high hopes for the book to transcend the police procedural genre in story too and actually be about the existential mysteries of Beszel/Ul Qoma, or even Orciny, but the story turned out to be a by the numbers mystery so after a while I started caring less and less about the narrator and the other characters and I was ultimately not able to relate with the novel so the empty feeling.

The first half of the book was new, fresh and the magisterial way Mr. Mieville managed to keep the act in place and make me believe in Beszel and Ul Quoma, the unseeing and all was breathtaking, but the second part in which explanations are coming, villains are unmasked, chases and shootouts happen sort of threw that away for me and the two cities faded into unreality, squiggles on paper, not living cities I can imagine visiting.

Wait, maybe I am in Breach :)

Recommended for the prose and for police procedural lovers, but it is far, far away from The Scar or PSS.



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