Book Review – The City & the City

5 stars. Engrossing and imaginative, The City & the City sucked me in right from the start. The premise of the book is that the eastern European styled city of Besźel and its Middle East influenced partner Ul Qoma share the same physical space, but have very distinct boundaries and serious penalties for crossing them, administered by the swift and decisive Breach. China Miéville gets full credit for trusting his readers to pick up how things work in his shared topology, rather than resorting to infodump to explain. The unique setting isn’t simply a backdrop, but an integral part of the story.

From this imaginative premise of boundaries more psychological than physical comes a very well done police procedural story. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel Extreme Crimes Squad investigates the murder of foreign student Mahalia Geary, soon joining forces with Qussim Dhatt of the Ul Qoman police. Paying homage to exactly the right tropes of the hardboiled police drama, the pair soon realizes that there is far more at stake than simply a murder, and it hinges on the rumor of the shadow city known as Orciny that might exist hidden in the spaces between the two. The plot unwinds with the breathless pace of a thriller; my urge to know what happens competing with my desire to drink in every word.

Miéville’s creativity shows up in his wordplay about the unique circumstances of the two cities. Some of the words that were perfect for his story are grosstopically (locales that exist within both cities, but heaven help those who breach the border improperly), unseeing (the art of ignoring things that exist in the other city–difficult in the case of police vehicles etc.), and my favorite, topolganger (places that have similar appearances and exist in both cities). His creativity with regard to the psychological impact of the split geography ties the whole novel together, and the underlying concept of the human ability to deceive oneself for the sake of maintaining the status quo is brilliantly executed.

This is a book that I will read again and again. In the twin cities where overlooking the other is a survival mechanism, there is so much nuance to reward the observant. Just don’t let Breach catch you!

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