Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review of The City and the City by China Mieville

The City and the City opens like thousands of other crime novels; a young woman's body is found dumped, and we are introduced to the law enforcement who have been assigned to discover what happened and who is responsible for the death.  The head of the investigation is Inspector Tyedor Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad.

From that point, the novel gradually opens out into something quite unlike any crime novel I have read, or indeed any crime novel one could imagine.  To start with, Beszel, which is described as being on the outskirts of Eastern Europe, is no ordinary city.  What the reader slowly and teasingly learns is that Beszel shares space with an entire other city, Ul Qoma.  The cities don't so much co exist, it is far more complicated than that, and learning how this extraordinary state of affairs effects general life for the citizens of both cities is one of the real joys of this novel so I will not say more.

The joy of Mieville's writing is the precision and detail of his ideas.  I have also recently read The Scar, by Mieville and found this true for that novel also.  His novels are awe-inspiring in their conception and meticulous follow through.  The writing is first rate, and I think certainly fits that mercurial description of literary; you have to work a little, there is no spoon feeding.  It is probably contentious to put the description literary to science fiction or fantasy but I certainly believe the work of Mieville fits that bill.

This is not a novel that is driven by strong characterisation or aiming for the usual type of emotional engagement from the reader.  It is an intellectual exercise, and one, I found to be breath-taking and fascinating.  I guess too, my enjoyment of this book surprises me as I would have thought I needed a strong connection to character to see me through a novel.  I have learned that is not the case.  I do have an emotional response toMieville's work, and it is simply, a jaw dropping "wow!"

The cityscapes that Mieville creates in The City and the City, will remain with me, and not just because they are so original and brilliantly realised.  It is because he has used this setting to construct a complex and powerful metaphor of modern life.  While there may not be a lot of emotional engagement with any one particular character, the whole sweep of the The City and the City evokes a strong sense of the disparity and contradictions that exist in our modern world, and that struck me at a human level.  It is clever and captivating writing, and I look forward to reading more.


  1. Lots of people say this is their favourite of his books, and I've got a copy on my shelf to read. I think I read a quote about him that was something like 'no-one else is writing like this'. I've only read Embassytown, but I was utterly gobsmacked at the conceptual elements, and like you say, not just conceived but followed through to perfection. I must get to this soon!

  2. Hi Mummazappa, you know, for enjoyment factor alone, gobsmacked reaction at brilliance aside, I would say I enjoyed The Scar more than The City and the City. The Scar is more of an adventure in the true sense, although it is twice as long The City. I can see I will have to give Embassytown a go too.


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