May 27 2009 6:11pm

The City & The City

China Miéville should need no introduction here. For those who don’t know his name, he has published a number of critically acclaimed and bestselling books, such as Un Lun Dun and Perdido Street Station. Miéville always imbues his books with dazzling originality and his new novel, The City & The City, is no exception.

The City & The City takes place in the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. What makes them interesting is that the two cities occupy the same geographic space. And occasionally, in spaces known as cross hatches, they occupy the same physical space. Citizens of the two cities must ‘unsee’ each other, as you can only legally see and interact with things from your own city. To go to the other city, you must obtain a passport and special permission. Cars drive down a street one direction in Besźel, cross over into the other city, and drive back down the street but in Ul Qoma.

This unique characteristic of the paired cities becomes a decided problem for Inspector Tyador Borlú, who is investigating a murder. Shortly into the investigation, it becomes clear that the person was killed in Ul Qoma, but the body was dumped in Besźel. Borlú must now navigate the both cities without breaking international laws.

It is a testament to Miéville’s skill that I had a quick thought to research these cities online to learn more about them. This is hardly unusual for Miéville, as each of his novels features a setting, often a city, that is made wholly from the cloth of Miéville’s brain, and yet is so fully realized that the setting becomes another character in the novel.

Much like Jack O’Connell's work, Miéville’s benefits from having a setting with so much depth to it. As much as character to character interaction drives the plot in The City & The City, Besźel and Ul Qoma control everyone’s decisions. Borlú and his co-investigators are continually stymied by things being in Ul Qoma instead of their native Besźel. And it’s not just the fact that the settings share a strange topography; each city is complete: there are political organizations, fashions, car styles, dialects, television stations, and more and more.

And yet, despite all this, as it is every time I get further into a Miéville novel, I begin to wonder if all this build-up will pan out in the end. I’ve had a series of disappointments reading his novels where everything starts out great and builds and builds to a point where it felt like Miéville had written himself into a corner. I worried that this would happen again.

It didn’t happen this time. The novel bucked and twisted, but Miéville brought it under reign with his strongest finish to date. The City & The City is not like any other Miéville novel you’ve read. It owes as much stylistically to Hammett and Palahniuk as his earlier work owed to Moorcock and Peake.

Prepare to be surprised. Prepare to read your ass off.

Steve Roby
1. Steve Roby
Damn, it's nice to see a Jack O'Connell reference. Just wish the guy would write more often, though at least I haven't read The Resurrectionist yet.

Oh, yeah, Mieville... I expect I'll be reading that, too.
Andrew Gray
2. madogvelkor
Sounds like Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau:
Tikitu de Jager
3. tikitu
How about a big prominent spoiler alert at the top of that post? I know it's generally understood around here, but my feeling is this book deserves it more than most.

I just finished it, and I would add one particular point of praise to the above. The setup of the two cities is deeply weird and is the core of the book. Miéville manages to avoid ever info-dumping about it: he piles up the incongruities and sidelong references and more explicit references until you get the picture, but there's never a moment that he tells you: this is how it works. That's nicely done.

I had it spoiled by a plot summary, and in retrospect I find that a shame; I would have enjoyed, I think, the slow process of cumulative realisation. Maybe some readers here will feel the same.
Tikitu de Jager
4. tikitu
(Also, since I can't see a nit without picking: it's "Ul Qoma" not "Ul Quona", according to my copy.)
James Goetsch
5. Jedikalos
I just finished reading it. It is so unlike the other books by him that I have read (The Scar, for example, and all the others set in that strange steampunk like world of his)--and it is unlike it in a very good way. It is more . . . sparse and less baroque, and I enjoyed it immensely more than his other works (which I did enjoy but found at times to be rather too much). But this is just right. I hope he writes more in this style, because it is fantastic.
James Goetsch
6. Jedikalos
Also, madog, thanks for the link to the intertwined cities: it was fascinating.
James Goetsch
7. Jedikalos
tikitu, I see your point: it only slowly dawned on me what was going on in the book, and it was a part of the impact it had on me. On Klima's behalf, however, I do not think he gives out that much information. How on earth could he review it without saying at least something about the two cities? But I'm glad I read it without reading the review first, nonetheless.
Tikitu de Jager
8. tikitu
Jedikalos: You're right, I wouldn't ask Klima to do the impossible and discuss the book without letting the cat out of the bag. But if I were writing about it, I would start with a non-spoilage and hint-heavy synopsis then say "If you want to appreciate the slow reveal, stop reading now."

There's a Miéville publicity release on youtube where he makes all kinds of hints but never quite comes out and says what's going on.
René Walling
9. cybernetic_nomad
About spoilers: I haven't read the book (yet) but all the info in this review is readily available on any site that sells the book (I'll bet a lot of it is on the cover blurb too). I don't think anything here is in "the butler did it" category

So now I know how cars move around in the two cities -- big deal. Sounds to me like those people complaining shouldn't read reviews until they are done reading the books/watching the movies etc...
Tikitu de Jager
10. tikitu
Cybernetic_nomad: The publishers have (I think wisely) chosen to word the copy on the jacket flap very carefully: "Borlú must travel from the decaying city of Bes?el to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own. This is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen. His destination is Bes?el's equal, rival, and intimate neighbour, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma." It's true that the reviews showing up on bookseller sites also give the game away, and I think that's a shame too.

I'm not normally rabidly anti-spoiler, and I'm not on some kind of crusade here. But I do regret that it was spoiled for me, so that I didn't get to experience the effect that (I think probably) Miéville intended. (You're right that it's not "the butler did it", but that's also the point of my appreciation above: what the review gives you is The Idea, while what the book gives you is a slow gradual seeping into consciousness of how things must work... which I ruefully imagine, with some envy for Jedikalos, must have been delicious.)

If I had read a review here (in spoiler-conscious genreville) that started by saying "There's a really neat central conceit that you maybe shouldn't know about until you read the book," I would have been much more careful about putting the blinkers on.

In other words, I'm someone who normally doesn't watch out for spoilage but will if I'm warned that it's important; in case there are other folk like me out there, I'm agitating for a warning in this case because I think it's particularly warranted. And I'm hassling John Klima because by the time anyone reads to my comment it will be too late -- not because I think he's done anything wrong, but because if there's going to be a spoiler warning anywhere it has to be high up in his post.
René Walling
11. cybernetic_nomad
Well, except for the car thing, I learned nothing new about the story by reading this review, and I haven't read the book -- all my knowledge is from reviews and discussions with friends and booksellers. So I think spoilage-wise, it can't be that bad.

FWIW, I am getting tired of comments in every second review thread here being a complaint about spoilers and requesting spoiler warnings. BTW, yours was just the straw that happened to break the camel's back -- nothing personal

Meanwhile, I dare anyone to write a spoiler-free review so we can find out if such a beast can exist and be informative and relevant to the work discussed.
Tikitu de Jager
12. tikitu
Apologies if I'm chiming in on the umpteenth repeat of a boring theme -- I read here by rss and don't usually get to the comment threads.

At the risk of repeating the offence, let me say again that I don't expect or ask that reviews be spoiler-free.

What I'm suggesting is that a review is a great place to put a spoiler warning: "There is something about this book that you might enjoy more if you don't know in advance, if you're that kind of person." And then go ahead and spoil away, in the comfortable knowledge that anyone still reading has made their choice.

As for a spoiler-free review... all right, I'm working on it. It won't be able to say the things Klima did, that's for sure -- interesting challenge.
Adam Callaway
13. Weirdside
I am so excited for this book I can hardly stand it! Unfortunately, being broke takes precedent over reviewing the new Mieville for my Weird Fiction blog. Downer.
René Walling
14. cybernetic_nomad
@12: And what I'm saying is that since (to the best of my knowledge) all reviews require that warning, then, really, none of them do. And if you're that kind of person, you should stop reading reviews (or demonstrate how to write a review without revealing any of the content of the book -- looking forward to seeing your review)

Tikitu de Jager
15. tikitu
Well, I had a go at a spoiler-free review; it's on LibraryThing. Of course it's not literally spoiler-free (obviously I have to talk about ... what happens in the book) but I've tried to avoid spoiling anything that I think is important.

But, lest the attempt be misread, my point is (still) not that reviews should be spoiler-free, even in this limited sense.

If someone reviewed Psycho and told you the ending you would think it was a pretty strange review; if they told you it's a psychological horror film and takes place in a motel, that's perfectly ordinary. There are fairly established conventions about not giving details of plot twists and endings. I'm just saying that the same consideration should maybe be extended to elements that aren't plot per se: since the reveal of this detail is so carefully constructed, I think it deserves a (specific) spoiler warning.

I guess I've been unclear in trying to give a general formulation ("There is something about this book..."), but I didn't intend to suggest slapping a generic "spoiler alert" on every review posting. Instead I mean, in this case, something like "The relationship between these two cities is a large part of what the book is about, it's revealed slowly and subtly, and I'm going to discuss it in detail; if you don't like spoilers, don't read on." Not all reviews require that kind of warning, because not all reviews have something unexpected to talk about.
René Walling
16. cybernetic_nomad
So you don't mention the relationship of the two cities, I think you've revealed a lot more about the shape of this book than John ever did. This can ruin the reading experience even more...
Theresa DeLucci
17. theresa_delucci
Having just finished the book, yeah, tikitu gave away a lot more than John's review even hinted at.

I don't think saying a few words about the relationship between the city is a spoiler, but talking about the last three chapters in some detail most certainly is. I don't see how it could be argued otherwise. If knowing a bit about the relationship of the cities from flap copy ruins your experience of the book, than it must not be a very rich book to being with. And this is a very rich, engaging book. But to give away elements of the ending in a murder mystery - that's just unfair.

Keep an eye on for an interview with the author. Most likely tomorrow.
René Walling
18. cybernetic_nomad

Looking forward to reading that! (and the book too, which I plan to get to Real Soon Now)
David Lev
19. davidlev
New Mieville to which I say yippee! Although I dread the ending of this one; my favorite Mieville book (Perdidio Street Station) was ruined by its goddamn ending

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