The City & the City - China Miéville

I said to Corwi in my office afterwards: "Please, do please stop me if you have any ideas, Lizbyet. Because I'm seeing a may-or-may-not-be working girl, who no one recognises, dumped in plain sight, in a stolen van, into which was carefully placed a load of crap, for no reason. And none of it's the murder weapon, you know—that's pretty certain."

I don't normally use spoiler alerts because I try not to give away too much about a book's plot that you wouldn't easily find on a dust jacket flap anyway. Plus, it's always hard to know beforehand whether you're going to enjoy a book if you have no idea what it's about, right? But here's a book that I want to recommend that you read without telling you a whole lot about it, because I think the premise itself will reward a slow discovery. I, unfortunately, already knew the premise going into it, because I'd read a brief description of it and then requested it for our library.

Here's what I can tell you without spoiling too much: it's about two neighboring cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, who have a tense relationship with each other. The plot centers around a young woman who turns up dead in Beszel; Inspector Borlú of Beszel's Extreme Crime Squad starts the investigation, which leads to some very surprising discoveries.

The writing was captivating and Miéville had a particular way of conveying that all this was taking place in other languages (and occasionally English) that seemed to work. I did find myself forgetting from time to time that these fictional cities were supposed to exist in our real world, in modern times, but then I'd come across a reference to the CIA's project about staring at goats, or fictional novels written by Chuck Palahniuk. Miéville is also good at slipping in terminology and slang naturally; as if the person telling the tale assumes you're part of his culture, rather than an outsider who needs explanations of everything.

I'd give the book a PG-13 rating except for the language, which bumps it up to an R. There's some violence, but mostly it takes place before the book begins, and then there are some action sequences in the last third. But apart from some of the characters particularly prone to swearing, the subject matter would be appropriate for older kids. Whether or not they'd be able to successfully navigate the twists and turns of the plot, however, depends on the kid.

That's about all I can say without giving away the big reveal. It's not your typical murder-mystery thriller, for sure. It's more of a mind-boggler with a police procedural coating, and if you want something that will really make you stop and think a bit, give this a shot.

Now, about that SPOILER ALERT... The rest of this post will get into the surprises, so if you're planning to read the book you might want to skip this and come back later.

The most fascinating aspect of the book is the relationship between the two cities. They are two separate countries, though it's not ever revealed if Beszel and Ul Qoma are the entire countries, or just the bordering cities. What is explained, however, is that the two cities reside in the same physical space, overlapping and crowding each other. Some sections are "total": in one city or the other, but others are "crosshatched," meaning that they exist in both cities at once.

What makes it interesting is the prohibition on breaching. Breach is when you cross over into the other city, whether by going into a total zone where you do not belong, or even a seemingly minor offense as acknowledging the other city is there. From childhood, citizens of both cities are taught to "unsee" the other city, but obviously there are some fascinating logistical hoops to jump through. I loved the description of Copula Hall, the center of both cities and the "border" through which people can cross from one city to another.

Breach is also the name of the mysterious extra-legal entity which addresses all crimes of breach. They're a bogeyman that exists, a mysterious force that appears from the shadows when a breach occurs, and then vanishes with the offender.

All of this adds up to a story that seems partly like science fiction, but then there's not much really sci-fi about it. I really enjoyed it and was completely drawn into the world of Inspector Borlú and his attempts to follow a virtually untraceable crime.

Fed to jonathan's brain | August 23, 2009 | Comments (0)


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