The City & The City – China Mieville

Sometimes I can get cross at myself as a reader (please tell me some of you do this too), as you are reading a really entertaining and interesting book such as ‘The City and the City’ by China Mieville yet because of everything else going on in your life you go into some sort of funk and you can’t read. Its not the books fault, and really its not your fault as the reader its just life, but if you are like me then you get really annoyed with yourself. However the sign of a good book is when you can have a break from it for a week or two rejoin the plot and characters and not only be straight back into the story you are also swept away by it again once more and this was one such book and considering its synopsis I actually thought I would struggle to get into it at all the first time.

The title ‘The City & The City’ really hints at what you might be expecting from this book (I don’t think China Mieville would have been able to get away with calling it ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ which could have been a good option) as the reader is rather quickly drawn into a world we almost know, a dystopian idea of some part of the edge of Europe, we must also accept that two cities can actually reside in the same place. It sounds complicated and like it might be hard work, which I thought it was going to be, but Mieville somehow makes the whole idea seem incredibly easy to imagine.

In the city of Beszel people are aware that there is another city, Ul Qoma, that occupies the same space as them and yet as they grow up they are trained in the art of ‘unseeing’. This comes into jeopardy on occasions when either something like a car crash happens in one city and for a while everyone can see both, possibly to do with the shock or the extremity of the situation. As we find ourselves in Beszel a murder of a young woman that seems unsolvable has occurred, and its not until Inspector Borlu, our protagonist, realises someone could be murdering people in Ul Qoma and leaving them in Bezsel that ‘unseeing’ may have to go out of the window and that ‘Breach’ (which is an all seeing all knowing eye, slightly in the vein of Orwell’s Big Brother in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’) may have to be consulted and assessed.

To say too much more would be to undo some incredibly clever twists, turns and imagination that Mieville creates and passes onto any reader coming to the book afresh and I wouldn’t want to ruin that. I will say that the murder mystery does take on a further twist or seven as we discover the murdered girl was looking for a third ancient city (yep, one more but fear not by this point you will be open to eight cities being in the one place as Mieville makes them so clearly different) which brings a whole new historical level to the book and that the powers that be may be hiding something creating a taught thriller that will have you furiously reading to its incredible dénouement.

Mieville has officially won me over with this novel, the characters are fully built, no one dimensional inspector in sight as some authors might have gone for in favour of story over substance. I know in the hands of another author most of this novel could have gone over my head and frustrated me to the point of throwing my book across the room. Not so in the case of Mieville, he’s clearly a masterful writer and incredibly inventive and clever but without a hint of smugness ever appearing on the page. ‘The City and the City’ is a book that has to be read to be believed, and for someone who doesn’t normally go for this type of book Mieville has gained a huge new fan! It’s a book to get lost in. 9/10 (I actually wanted it to be longer and unfold a little though what he achieves in only 312 pages is incredible.)

So I have found a new author now who I want to read the entire works of. In fact I was most annoyed that this was from the library and I had to give it back. I think had I not had the rush of that deadline, someone selfishly requested it (ha); I might have started the book over and loved it even more. That’s not the book or authors fault, and not really mine its just sods law. I think Mieville fans it seems were slightly let down by this book, have any of you read it? If this is his poorest as some, not all, of his fans believe which books are his best I wonder? Can any of you could recommend where I should head to next, which Mieville books have you read and been blown away by?

This book I borrowed from the library, and returned rather grumpily as I would have liked to have it on my shelves to read again one day, its one of those books you could get something new from every time you read it.

19 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, China Mieville, Pan MacMillan, Review

19 responses to “The City & The City – China Mieville

  1. Simon, I love Mieville, although I’ve yet to read this one.

    I started with Perdido Street Station, which was a hard slog, let me tell you! I can see why Mieville fans might not have liked this as much. Normally he writes very dense, second world fantasy, and this is much nearer alternate history/urban fantasy instead (from what I gather). In terms of genre, it’s the difference between Jilly Cooper and Eurocreme.

    That said, I quite like literary fantasy, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

    BTW, if you liked it, you might want to try Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch. Another example, closer to home (set in an alternate Manchester) is Jeff Noon’s Vurt. It’s certainly more . . . weird than Mieville, but it’s really fun and has a very contemporary feel, informed by 90s club culture.

  2. Yay! I’m SO glad you liked it because I felt the same way too. The whole concept of the two cities is amazing, isn’t it? And I was really impressed at how he made it all work. This was my first book by Mieville and I’ve already got Kraken lined up and will also be working through his backlist. If you get the chance, he’s wonderful to see live at talks as well.

  3. I have found a new author now who I want to read the entire works of.

    Ah, you’re in for a treat, Simon — he’s excellent. I’ve read all of Mieville’s books bar two, so I’ll see what I can advise…

    The thing about The City & the City is that it’s very different from anything else Mieville has written: it’s tight and focused, where his novels usually tend to be big and sprawling. I’d suggest trying Kraken next — not because of its quality (it’s fun, but I think it’s one of his lesser books), but because it’s a good introduction to his usual style whilst still being accessible if you don’t generally read that kind of fiction.

    Perdido Street Station is probably Mieville’s single best book, and that really is long and raggedy, and has its imagination consistently firing on all cylinders. The Scar is in the same vein, but probably not quite as dense (relatively speaking).

    King Rat (the Pied Piper brought to contemporary London) was his first book; it is different from anything he’s done since, but as it’s so long since I read it, I’m not sure how I would rate it in the context of his other work. Un Lun Dun is a YA novel — it’s okay, but not up to the standards of his adult books.

    Iron Council and Looking for Jake are the two I haven’t read; I’ve heard mixed opinions of both of them. Then there’s Embassytown coming next year, which looks interesting.

    Hope that’s useful!

    PS. I second Adam on Jeff VanderMeer, but I would recommend reading his Ambergris books in order, and starting with City of Saints and Madmen.

  4. David, some great suggestions. Only one thing: City of Saints & Madmen is short stories, so I’m not sure if that would be Simon’s thing (it might be of course, but he should bear it in mind). Finch, however, has many thematic similarities with The City & the City.

  5. This is definitely a book that you need to be FOCUSED to read, yes? Mieville took the over-flogged murder mystery genre and made it the most fresh, creative thing I’ve read in years. I listened to this on audio, which made it even more of a wild ride, but I just hung on and saw it through. This man is an absolute genius.

  6. I’m a big Mieville fan, and I agree with pretty much everything David H said.

    There’s nothing wrong with The City and The City, but books like Iron Council, The Scar, and even Un Lun Dun spoiled me with a much higher level of weird and offputting, so City seemed rather tame on comparison.

  7. I also started with Perdido Street Station, and was blown away by his dark vision and the depth and breadth of his imagination. The City and The City, to me, also seemed rather tame in comparison!

  8. I should probably add that, for me, The City is up there with Perdido as one of Mieville’s two best books, different as they are from each other.

    Adam:

    Finch, however, has many thematic similarities with The City & the City.

    True, but I do think you get more out of it if you’ve read the two previous books first.

  9. “..In fact I was most annoyed that this was from the library and I had to give it back.” I had to run out and buy a copy so I could read it again!

  10. I keep meaning to read this simon ,not huge sci fi fan but he gripped me a bit when I heard him on the book programme on radio four a while ago ,all the best stu

  11. Oh my, why have I not read this one yet, it sounds utterly fantastic! I loved the idea of worlds barely separated in His Dark Materials but it didn’t go so far, this sounds one better.

  12. JoV

    Heard do much about China Mieville, and looks like I could start with this one and move on to Kraken next.

    I am intrigued that you are reading Middlesex now, and can’t wait to hear what you think about it! Everyone says it’s good. 😉

  13. novelinsights

    Great review. I have a copy of Kraken which I want to read first but I will definitely have to get a copy of this at some point!

  14. I haven’t read enough to call myself a fan but I did like this one (except for the ending, which seemed rather intangible). I went out and ordered Kraken as sson as I heard about it, because come on, giant squids are sure to be cool.

  15. I completely agree with you about The City. It’s a wonderful standalone, but it’s completely different from the New Weird Bas-Lag/New Crobuzon books. In all seriousness, I would not recommend you go on to Kraken next. Go back and read Pedido Street Station and see if you like that style.

    http://opionator.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/kraken-by-china-mieville/

  16. It’s weird how things become vogue all of a sudden. My NaNoWriMo book I’m working on is about a hidden steampunk city inside/on-top-of/in-the-cracks-of Manchester, called Cottonopolis. Neil Gaiman has his Neverwhere, in the underground of London, and Christopher Fowler had a story about a rooftop world instead.

    It’s interesting, our continual fascination with the city and its spaces. People both love and hate big cities, and it’s often the case that a city does exist on many levels. A queer man living in Soho will experience an entirely different city to someone who lives in the East End, for example.

  17. I am so glad you loved this book. The City & The City is the only book that I’ve read by Mieville so far, though I did have Un Lun Dun checked out the library this year, and never got around to it. I loved the intricacies of the world-building in The City & The City.

  18. Pingback: Embassytown – China Mieville « Savidge Reads

  19. Pingback: Margaret Atwood and China Mieville – The Savidge Reads Advent Calendar Day 10 | Savidge Reads

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