Book Review: The City & The City, by China Miéville

My full review of this book is up, over at The Book Book.

Part conventional murder mystery, part dark urban fantasy, The City & The City is constructed on a bizarre high concept which the author makes somehow believable: two Eastern European cities are not just neighbors, adjacent to each other; they’re even closer than that. They […wait a beat…] overlap.

Note that this departs from the parallel-universes or -dimensions premise employed in many science fiction and fantasy novels since the mid-20th century. Those other narratives generally suppose that the two places have completely different timelines, perhaps branching off from each other, so that events in one place have no direct impact on the other; people can move between dimensions only with difficulty, by way of some exotic technology or talent.

The people in The City & The City have no such weird abilities or devices. They’re just normal human beings. Physically, they can move from one city to the other just by stepping from one to the other.

The key word there: “physically.” For the two cities have developed legal and cultural barriers preventing crossover. They have different languages. They have different architectural and clothing styles, favor different color schemes. Their cuisines smell and taste different. (They even differ in their diplomatic relationships. One city is recognized by the US and Canada; the other, by Canada only. If you want to fly from the US to the latter, you must do so from some other country — like Canada.) From childhood, people learn to unsee the people and objects in the other city. They are forbidden to cross back and forth except at one location, a single otherwise conventional border crossing with gates and guards.

All of which has no bearing on the investigations and solutions of most crimes. But now, an American woman has been killed in City A, and the body found in City B…

When I started reading this book, I knew pretty much nothing about it. I’d seen comments on it on various blogs I read and respect; these comments praised it highly but never for specific reasons (other than with expressions like “blew my mind”). Even after I began reading, it took me a while to catch on — by Miéville’s design, I think. The body is discovered; the detective talks with eyewitnesses and colleagues, and collectively they start developing some theories. But then at the end of Chapter 1, a dozen or so pages in, I came to the following passage. The detective-narrator, in an idle moment, finds himself watching an elderly woman on a nearby street.

… In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.

Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. I raised my head, towards an aircraft on its final descent. When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street at the facades of the nearby and local GunterStrász, that depressed zone.

That screeching sound, that crash you just heard? That was the echo of my collision with the word unnoticing. Even when I read back a few sentences, and then ahead — “should not have seen her”? “her foreign street” vs. “local GunterStrász”? — I was still confused as hell. I couldn’t wait to turn the page.

And that, above all else, is what I want from a mystery.

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