China Miéville’s novel The City & The City certainly lives up to its author-given label of weird fiction. Rest assured, I mean that as a compliment. It’s a little bit paranormal, but totally rooted in the real world. It’s strange, but makes sense in its own way. It gives commentary on many aspects of modern society and culture, without getting pretentious. Essentially, Miéville gives the reader a thoroughly foreign fictional world that is recognizable and relatable regardless of its oddity.
There is no exposition; Inspector Tyador Borlú arrives at the crime scene on page one, kicking off the investigation that drives the novel. A body of a young woman has been found in an alley of Besźel and Borlú is heading up the case. The young woman is initially a “Fulana Detail” (the Besź name given to unknowns, the equivalent to “Jane Doe” in the United States), but Borlú and his partner Corwi quickly turn up multiple names and aliases for her. Their investigation takes many erratic and unorthodox turns, including some clues that come from sources that Borlú can’t even admit to having been in contact with.
This secrecy is due to the politics of Besźel — and its neighboring city of Ul Qoma. The two cities occupy the same geographic location, but they operate as entirely separate entities that don’t even acknowledge each other unless forced to do so. The people of Besźel and Ul Qoma are raised to “unsee” the opposite city and its citizens, a psychological training that allows them to ignore foreign happenings, even if they are unfolding right next to them. Each considers the other to be an international city, and the consequences for breaking the invisible barriers between the cities is swift and irreversible. There is a shadowy sort of secret police called Breach that enforces the rules of unseeing with an iron fist, to the point that both Besź and Ul Qomans don’t even like to mention the dark organization. There is also the shadowy possibility of a third city, Orciny. The characters generally consider Orciny to be a folk legend, but Borlú is forced to reconsider his beliefs when the third city becomes a major factor in his investigation.
It takes some time as a reader to fully understand the intricacies of the relationship between Besźel and Ul Qoma, but to me, the interplay between the city and the city was just as interesting as the murder mystery that spans both locations. I really enjoyed Miéville’s language and writing style, as well as the imagery he crafts. The murder investigation is almost secondary at times to the history and politics of the cities; I generally didn’t mind this, but at times it made the pacing drag somewhat. This certainly isn’t a thriller, but it is still an excellent mystery, with plenty of viable suspects and shifting motives. Miéville had me guessing literally right up until the murderer was revealed.
I realize this is a much vaguer description and review than usual, but I think that part of what makes this novel unique and worthwhile is the gradual dawning of understanding and the feeling of working right alongside Borlú to unravel the case. I definitely recommend reading The City & The City, and so I don’t want to ruin anybody’s independent journey through the pages. I honestly don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much had I known what was happening from the outset. My recommendation: dive into the weird fiction world of Miéville. Don’t give up on this novel if it seems slow or nonsensical at points. Read through to the end, because the final twist not only comes out of nowhere, but forces you to continue to reevaluate the events of the novel long after you finish reading.