The City & The City by China Miéville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Back in 2010, most of the literary awards in the Sci-Fi realm was distributed or shared among two hugely acclaimed works. One of these was ‘The Windup Girl’ by Paolo Bacigalupi, a riveting dystopian thriller set in Bangkok and one which I read and loved a few years back. When I realized that there was another equally acclaimed book from that year I figured I needed to get my hands on it. That book is ‘The City & the City’ by China Miéville; an intriguing name, but one aptly suited to the theme it tackles.

The unique city world which the author builds up is one like no other. Besźel and Ul Qoma are the two cities here, and Miéville never spells it out completely for the lazy reader on what these two are exactly split on. He gives clues and short expositions on the cleavage between the cities which happened at some seismic point in the past and how the two cities occupy virtually the same spaces and yet are irredeemably differentiated by some ambiguous (and yet somehow clearly defined) boundaries. Basically, the two cities overlap onto each other in various places and some places belong to both cities, called cross-hatched zones. Citizens of either nation state are expected to not see the overlapping zones of the other when they go about their daily tasks. This involves a practice called ‘unseeing’ the other. The consequences of not ‘unseeing’ could be grave; there is a secretive and seemingly all powerful authority called ‘Breach’ which carts away offenders of this sort who may never be seen again.

It is in the midst of this distinct topography that Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźian Extreme Crime Squad finds himself knee deep in the investigation of a grisly murder involving a young woman who may have breached into one or the other of these cities. The murder itself may have been an incident of breach, occurring in one city and discovered in another. As Borlú and his subordinate, Corwi, get deeper into the mire, a whole gamut of nationhood strife comes to the fore which, despite the story’s fantastical setting, mirror some real world problems. There are, among others, unificationists and border loving nationalists on both sides of the divide and it’s possible that the young lady upset both of them. Soon, our inspector is officially crossing the divide into Ul Qoma where he will be teamed up with a similarly hard-nosed and no-nonsense detective in Qussim Dhatt. But will they be able to get to the bottom of a murder which has the potential to upset people on both sides and may as well involve a shady third conclave of people who live on the fringes of the spaces between the cities? Borlú may well have to deal with both the forces behind the murder as well as the powerful Breach to get an answer.

Miéville’s style here is more impersonal as compared to ‘The Windup Girl’ which maybe why I couldn’t feel for the characters as much as I did there. However, there is no doubt on the ingenuity of his imaginative vision as he creates a border line like none other, a symbolic representation of division that hits home as any in the real world. His not pandering to the audience by over-exposition also helps create the aura of mystery around a story which could have otherwise played out as a by the numbers whodunit. The world is not built for us, instead we are put into its midst and learn more about it as the story progresses through the eyes of the good inspector. Yes, I would have liked a bit more of a personal backstory to the primary characters to connect and feel for them a bit more, especially Borlú and Corwi, but this is a minor roadblock in a thriller which keeps us invested from start to finish with some remarkable world building. Watch out also for the impressive wordplay used to describe aspects of this world. Among others, ‘grosstopically’, ‘topolganger’, ‘alterity’, ‘corsshatching’.

In other words, this is a book recommended for all kinds of fiction fans – the literary enthusiasts, lovers of sci-fi or those who just like a good bit of thriller writing.

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