The City & the City , a stand-alone novel by China Miéville, is a murder mystery given a unique twist through its setting. The City & the City takes place in two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma—both of which occupy the same physical space. Each city, however, has its own distinct architecture, atmosphere, and culture. The residents of each city have one thing in common: they are essentially required by law to ignore each other through a process calling “unseeing” (which is exactly what it sounds like). The novel opens with Inspector Tyador Borlu investigating the death of an unknown woman in the city of Beszel, but while he searches for the killer he becomes embroiled in the complex—and secret—history of both cities.
The readers are on their own
Miéville doesn’t bother introducing the reader to all the rules of his setting. He sets you in the story right from the first page and lets your understanding of the world build as the cities are explored throughout the book. The story can seem abrupt and frustrating at first because you’re placed into a unique setting complete with its own rules, slang, and politics, few of which are ever directly explained. Don’t let this deter you from sticking with the story, however. If you keep reading, you’ll be rewarded with an ever-increasing grasp on the nature of Beszel and Ul Qoma and how they interact with each other, even through the very end of the book. The City & the City is a journey of exploration, of trying to understand new and different places, for both the characters and the reader.
Miéville’s prose is so sparse in The City & the City that, until the reader adjusts to the style, it can be jarring for a significant portion of the book. Miéville omits every unnecessary word in this book, and his sentences—especially dialogue—can come across as fractured and broken. This isn’t detrimental to the story or reading experience; it is merely a different style of writing, and while it can take some time to adjust, it proves to work well in the context of the story.
The sparse language is also an aspect of the way the story is told. Inspector Borlu’s first-person narration limits itself strictly to analytical observation. He tells you what happens and provides his perspective on what is happening, but never lets you in on his personal feelings. As a result of this detachment, we never get to see who Inspector Borlu really is as a person. He is a very distant character, and both this and his heavily restrained narrative may be a reflection of his work as a detective. Either way, this lack of connection makes it difficult to become emotionally attached to Borlu; the stakes are never high on a personal level.
An unfulfilling ending
While the novel begins as a murder investigation, it slowly transitions its focus to the nature of the titular cities and the politics and conspiracies that lie behind their parallel existence. A number of interesting ideas are explored as the novel progresses, which led me to expect a lot from the ending. Unfortunately, these ideas never really amounted to anything. Questions are answered and plot threads are resolved, but the surprising twists and exciting climaxes I was expecting and looking forward to never happened. The ending is abrupt and unfulfilling, making the experience of reading the book feel like undertaking a truly fascinating journey that simply stops and falls flat before it reaches its “true” destination.
Why should you read this book?
The City & the City really doesn’t have much going for it in terms of entertainment value. It isn’t a particularly exciting book, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re just looking for a fun read. However, the unique setting is really fascinating to explore and makes the book worth checking out if you’re at all interested in speculative fiction.