10. ‘The City and the City’ by China Miéville

Usually the words ‘police procedural’ would be enough to put me right off a book, but the sci-fi concept of China Miéville’s The City and the City was enough to sell it to me anyway. I’m really glad it did, because for once I enjoyed a detective novel!

the city and the city china mieville

Tyador Borlú is an inspector with the Besźel police force. His latest case is the murder of a young woman whose body was found in a skate park. There’s an added layer of complication, though – she was murdered in a different city before her body was dumped in Besźel. That other country is Ul Qoma, and the relationship between these two cities is very unusual. Besźel and Ul Qoma share the same geographical space; they’re two cities overlaid on top of each other, and all the citizens are able to ‘unsee’ the other city and only inhabit their own. A Besźel house might stand right next to an Ul Qoman one, but the Besźel citizen will only see the house in her own country, and if she ever acknowledges that Ul Qoma is there, she could be ‘disappeared’ by the mysterious force of Breach.

It’s a pretty mind-bending concept, but Miéville spends a good amount of time setting it up and getting the reader used to the idea. Through Borlú, we learn how a citizen ‘unsees’ the other city, how the people skirt around each other on the streets, and where the official crossing point is between the two (you can cross through a checkpoint into the other city, and then you have to unsee the city you came from, even if you pass by your best friends or your own house). There’s also the pervasive fear of Breach, the power whose sole responsibility it is to get rid of anybody who breaks the invisible boundary between the cities (e.g. a Besźel citizen going into an Ul Qoman shop). Without question, this is a high-concept novel, but I think the concept is strong enough to carry all the way through the story, and it remains integral to the plot all the way through so that it never feels gimmicky.

Borlú is a fairly typical protagonist for the crime genre (as far as I know it). He’s a slightly rebellious, ‘get the job done’ type, who is clever enough to follow the thread of clues, and generic enough that most readers could identify with him. The other characters are quite good too, but this kind of story really isn’t about characters – it’s about the twisty plot and that amazing concept. One of my favourite parts of the book is the language Miéville uses to describe the relationship between the two cities. ‘Grosstopically’ means two places that are close together in physical fact, but are conceptually in different places. ‘Topolganger’ is a street or landmark that is in both cities at once.

The City and the City is a really cool novel, with a great central concept and a fast-paced, unpredictable plot that will keep you hooked. The ending goes to some pretty exciting places, and if you don’t usually like crime – well, neither do I, but I did like this one, so maybe give it a go.

“Is it more foolish and childish to assume there is a conspiracy, or that there is not?”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read it? You can buy The City and the City here.

What do you think?