A strange premise entices you towards an incredibly rewarding mystery.
I’m not sure quite how it has taken me this long, but last year I discovered that China Mieville is one of the greatest fantasy authors around today. I guess fantasy might not be quite the right word. Nor is sci-fi. Mieville’s novels often forego the usual troupes attached to both of these genres and creates something quite unique. I read one description of his work as “urban surrealism” and I cannot think of anything that suites it better. The City and the City was the first of his novels that I read, and it is truly fantastic. It starts off as what seems to be a run-of-the-mill murder mystery, but what transpires is a story and setting unlike anything I have ever read.
The story begins with the protagonist, Inspector Borlu of the Beszian Extreme Crime Squad investigating the death of a young woman, Mahalia Geary, found at a derelict housing estate. So far so normal. Where the story takes a strange turn is when we find out that the city of Beszel, where the body was found, occupies the same physical space as a separate, wealthier city called Ul Qoma. The citizens of these cities have learnt the custom of “unseeing”, where they are never quite conscious of each other. The easiest way to explain this is that two houses may sit next to one another, one in Ul Qoma, the other in Beszel, but the inhabitants will never meet, talk or even glance at one another; two people can walk down the same pavement side by side, one in Beszel, the other in Ul Qoma, but never bump into one another, and each seeing a different set of passers-by, buildings, with different amounts of traffic. To acknowledge the presence of the other, even inwardly, would be to draw the attentions of “Breach”, the feared secret police force that patrols the borders. Investigating Mahalia’s death, Borlu uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the boundaries between the two cities.
It’s mind-bending, to say the least, and is a concept that is quite hard to get your head around at first. But, once you do, to leads to a story full of intrigue and you find yourself perpetually attached to Borlu’s investigation and the conspiracy that begins to unravel. They way Mieville threads the narrative is with complete mastery, taking every step with assured confidence. He knows the story he wants to tell, and he knows how he wants to tell it. The reason Mieville wrote this book was as a gift to his terminally ill mother, who was a fan of police procedurals, which is clear from the very start. It is written with passion and purpose and is a perfect meld of the fantastical and the realistic.
What is really clever about this novel is the way it presents a metaphor to modern life in a way that is so open yet done so intricately. The whole notion of “unseeing” portrays the human infliction of ignoring what does not directly concern us. Those who live so close to us are often complete strangers – we see them, we hear them, but we don’t acknowledge them. We don’t go to the same restaurants, or shops. We live our lives as if to directly interact with those we don’t know would incur the wrath of the fictional ‘Breach’. But Mieville does not force that parable on to us. It is subtle and clever; more of a means to add a realism to the fantastical plot that tethers us.
The City and the City is an intelligent, unique novel that works as both a parable to modern life, and a unique take on an age-old genre. This is Mieville casting aside the genre defining troupes of the weird fiction world and, in its place, creating something of his own. The reason this works so well is not because it is something completely unique, but because it drags you in to the drama from the get go and makes it very hard to put the book down. This is the best book I have read in a long time and, if you are reading this and have never experience a China Mieville novel, I would urge you to get this immediately.