Summary: The City And The City is a hard-boiled detective novel with a difference. Set in a location that feels very Eastern European in tone, and not far removed from a real place, we follow Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad as he begins investigations into the body of a murdered woman. The very effective spin that Mieville uses, which moves this novel from the crime shelves in the bookstores to the SFF shelves, is that the setting is actually two cities existing in the same location, governed in a sinister fashion by Breach. Borlu lives in Beszel, a grim city with featureless concrete and rattling trams, where the citizens wear few colours. The other city is Ul Qoma, and both cities exist in the same time and space. The citizens of each have learned from a young age to unsee and unsense the people and buildings of the other city. In the event that, say, a citizen of Ul Qoma acknowledges a citizen of Beszel, they are then subject to the jurisdiction of Breach.
"But pass through Copula Hall and she or he might leave Beszel, and at the end of the hall come back to exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, but in another country, a tourist, a marvelling visitor, to a street that shared the latitude-longitude of their own address, a street they had never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen, to the Ul Qoman house sitting next to and a whole city away from their own building, unvisible there now they had come through, all the way across the Breach, back home."
My review: I have a couple of China Mieville books on my shelf already, and confess to never having picked them up so far. Somehow I thought they would be pretentious and wordy, and I could never quite tell which genre something like 'Perdido Street Station' fell under. When I decided to do the Arthur Clark shortlist read, I was both interested in reading my first Mieville book, but also feeling a little dread at the idea of picking up something that seemed so meta and impossibly clever. In fact, I will confess something more: I picked The City And The City up first out of the six to get it over with.
Having set the scene, I can now state categorically that this is one of the most powerful SFF books I have ever read, and is without doubt my top read of 2010 so far. I found it unbelievably accessible (especially considering my unfounded view of Mieville's work); stunningly imaginative and constantly entertaining. I am willing to abuse adjectives at length to convey my extremely high opinion of this book.
So why did I enjoy it so much? This is where the review becomes harder to write. Sometimes you just 'click' with a book and enjoy it thoroughly. This definitely happened. But it was more than that. While I read each page, I felt as though I was reading something important, clever and classic. In fact, I imagine the way I felt reading The City And The City would be the way the first person felt when picking up Dracula or Frankenstein: enjoying the book for what it is (a darn good story) but also conscious that this novel is something special and has the potential to resonate through generations of readers.
The story was tight, well-written, with excellent pacing. Thanks to the rather slight nature of the novel (a mere 312 pages, in my hardback edition), I found that there were no erroneous scenes or indulgently bloated descriptions - everything felt very lean, and helped lend the plot a driving urgency.
I enjoyed the characters. In particular, the first person perspective of Borlu enables us to experience the frustration, the fear and the eventual fall-out of the investigation. His familiarity with the city of Beszel immediately gives Ul Qoma an exotic flavour, giving strength to the concept that these are two very separate places co-existing in the same location. He is ably assisted by a short cast of secondary characters, with their own motivations and foibles. None of these characters felt at all as though they were purely there to drive the story along - all of them felt fully-realised.
The way that Mieville declines to really delve into the back story of his main character is also well-done. It is not necessary for the plot, and therefore we catch only a glimpse, a mere snapshot, into the life of Borlu. This for me was far more effective writing and had more of an impact than if Mieville had lovingly dwelt on events that were in the past and had no relevance at all to the present time.
Beyond all of that, and the exceptionally clear descriptions of the two cities, concept is everything. If this had been a straight-up detective novel, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly, what with the twists and red herrings thrown into the mix as well. Add into that the notion of these two cities co-existing - allowing Mieville to explore issues such as nationalism, patriotism and a 'big brother' entity - and you have a killer novel that delivers on every level.
This will be one of the very rare reviews when I do not strive to find something that I disliked to balance the review. It would be nitpicking for the sake of it, and I'm not sure I could honestly find something that I didn't like enough to discuss it impartially.
Arthur Clark thoughts: When I picked up this book, I didn't know that it was about to pick up the BSFA award, or be nominated for a Hugo, although that has now happened. What I do know is that, even without those two events occurring, I would still be holding this book up as probably the one that should and will win. I am prepared to be swayed as I read the other five books in the shortlist, but I am unsure if any can top the sheer breathtaking imagination of The City and The City. I just hope that I don't find the rest a disappointment!