The City & the City

China Miéville
The City & the City Cover

The City & the City


When Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crimes Squad gets called in to investigate a dead body found in a seedy part of Beszel, it seems at first like a clear cut case. But when it takes on a sudden twist and investigations lead to darker, ever more nebulous revelations, he suddenly finds himself faced with not only the toughest case of his career, but one with extreme ramifications, personally and on a grand scale.

This was my very first China Mieville book, and it's abundantly clear why he has a strong fandom in certain fantasy circles. I've heard his name many, many times when I'm looking for great new fantasy reads, but it was when I bumped across an essay of his where he critiques Tolkien's influence on fantasy that I realized I had to try one of his books really soon. And I definitely love what I see here.

The stars of this show are easily the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, which exist in the same space and time. That's not even where things get interesting. If you're a citizen of Beszel, it's ingrained in your very nature to ignore anything and anyone related to Ul Qoma, and the same goes for Ul Qomans where it comes to Beszel. Imagine walking down a street where half of everything on the horizon exists in an entire nation; you cannot even legally acknowledge its existence. Literally. What happens if you ignore the boundary? Then you'd be breaching, and the Breach will step in, a shadowy force that policies both cities and answers to no one. People who knowingly breach the boundary between the two cities are never seen again, when the Breach comes for them. So we have two cities that exist literally together. And then there's the folktales of the third city that exists in places where each city thinks the other exists . . . . . .

Mieville's prose is an eye opener. After reading this book, it just absolutely highlights how completely Spartan a few of my favourite authors' writing is like. In the very first chapter, he creates such a rich feeling to the story I was instantly hooked. Right off the bat, we have a murder mystery that feels deeply noir, set in a city I can't help but imagine as a shadier part of Hungary, and then there's the careful laying out of the plot. As the story progresses, his prose just works like magic; he creates distinct, unique characters through nothing more than their actions, in addition to telling his story in a highly enjoyable manner.

The plot is extremely realistic for such a fantastical setting, and that made me enjoy the story a lot more than I already did. Investigating is similar to law in the respect that fictional media has romanticized it as being very much more action packed than it is. In truth? Its hours and hours of paperwork, boring, tedious, repetitive, with a lot of cross referencing, tracing down useless leads and then some more paperwork. The investigation that plays out in here reflects this, and it made me enjoy the story a lot more, which was surprising in itself given I've become completely saturated with mystery plots enough to last a decade or five.

But easily, my favourite part of the book was the exploration of the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. Mieville's imagination runs wild on this aspect of the story; how do newcomers handle such a unique place? How do citizens handle it? And then there's the dichotomy of the cities that represents the two major modern existing natures of countries today. In Beszel, we have what feels like a Communist government, with Third World living conditions for the general populace. Small touches like banned books and negligible foreign investment just added to this. And then there's the city of Ul Qoma, where people seemed to experience First World conditions, a democratic ruling body, and general capitalist inclinations. My favourite bit of the world building is where Beszel is referred to as the "decayed" parts of Ul Qoma.

All in all, a highly enjoyable novel. Mieville is a multiple award winning writer, and the reason why is clearly splashed all across these pages. A rich, vibrant imagination, combined with an excellent, riveting story makes this an easily fun read, despite the fact I'm far from an urban fantasy fan, and I'm also tired of mysteries. Some books are just too enjoyable. I entered this book expecting at best an average read because of my biases, and I'm happy to be disappointed on that front. Definitely recommended.