Book review – ‘The City and the City’ by China Miéville

Rating: 2.75/5 stars

“When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.”
-from the novel’s blurb


For an inhabitant of Besźel there is one main rule, do not notice your neighbouring city of Ul Qona. The problem? The neighbouring city is not neighbouring at all but physically in the same space, differentiated by cultural aspects such as architecture, clothing, gait. If you live in Besźel, you quickly learn not to see the other city because to do so would be to invoke the mysterious powers of Breach… and to disappear.

A body left in Besźel. Tyador Borlú is given the job of investigating the crime. However, this leads to him getting caught up in an investigation which seems increasingly tangled in a web of politics, cover-ups, and even mythology, by the moment. With the amount at stake growing by the moment, and Tyador becoming more and more personally involved in the case, he is forced to travel to the Other city to attempt to solve the mystery. However, there are forces at work above and beyond the police and solving this case may not be as easy as it seems.

The premise is strange but profound. Although the murder and the surrounding details make up the plot line, it is the concept of the overlapping cities, and the rarely seen but always present Breach, that truly dominates this piece. From that point of view, it was fascinating. Miéville has constructed a world that obeys these strange rules out of fear but also without mental questioning as to why. There’s sense that things must be this way but no explanation. In this way, and from the context from which I read this novel, it highlights the futility and stupidness of our own racism and social structures. The novel takes to the extreme the way in which we as humans will attempt to ‘not see’ groups that are different… just because.

However, it is also this location which makes the book difficult. The hundred pages or so, for me, were a whirl of fighting with place names, people names, concepts. While the instability with regard to names was probably intentional, it made the piece a lot harder to get into.

The plot itself, and the murder case, was twisting and winding. You felt the frustration of police on both sides as they were offered tiny leads yet hit walls at every turn, both in their own city and because of the other city. However, it was also hard to follow some of the link ups. Towards the end it rather felt like Tyador had some Sherlock Holmes-esque epiphanies that us mere mortals could never achieve. In the background of this otherwise gritty and realistic-ish book, that really stood out to me.

I did, however, struggle with this book more generally. The style wasn’t my cup of tea. The pacing didn’t work for me. The characters and the plot – fascinating. Sadly, I just never fell into the tale and so the amazing work that was obviously contained in this novel had much less effect than I had hoped it would.

The City and the City is available in both Kindle and Paperback format from Amazon… and hardback if you want to pay a tonne!

I read this book for my Cities and Cultures class and therefore scheduled this review to post after the course finished so there was no risk of self plagiarising should I have been called to write on it!


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