Breaching invisible borders
The City & The City is a murder mystery, old-fashioned in its way, narrated by a tough-talking police investigator and layered with all the shadow and menace of a film noir. China Miéville, known for such sprawling and often innovative fantasies as Perdido Street Station and Iron Council, turns to a leaner approach in this novel, hanging his story on prose that is at once precise, mordant and vivid. The result is a tightly plotted, thoroughly engaging read, at turns beguiling and revelatory.
The most original aspect of the book is its setting. The two cities of the title, Besźel and Ul Qoma, are vastly dissimilar places, each with its own language, culture and forms of political unrest. Ul Qoma is undergoing an economic boom while Besźel decays in a slump. Though the two cities are located in different countries, they share a common past and—this is the extraordinary conceit that drives the narrative—they occupy the same geographical space. Residents of one city are strictly prohibited from interacting with residents of the other, even though they walk the same streets. Failing to “unsee” the other city and its citizens is a crime; to actually have dealings with them is “Breach,” something rather worse than illegal border-crossing.
Complications arise when Inspector Tyador Borlú is called upon to investigate the murder of a young woman whose body is discovered in his home city of Besźel. The problem is that the murder seems to have taken place in Ul Qoma. If the murder is an instance of Breach, then the crime is outside of Borlú’s jurisdiction, and responsibility lies with a power more dangerous and enigmatic than his police squad.
Borlú is unable to leave the case alone, however, and to continue his investigation he must travel to Ul Qoma, where he is ensnared in a conspiracy involving the government, a forbidden book, an archaeological site and the cities’ ancient past. The paradox of his situation—to seek truth in a place which demands that one willfully ignore a part of what is real—allows Miéville to construct a fascinating and original hybrid of fantasy and crime fiction.
Jedediah Berry is the author of a novel, The Manual of Detection.