China Miéville’s Tale of Two Cities: The City and The City

The City and The City is the first and only book that I’ve picked up that was authored by China Miéville, and it’s easily one of the best books that I’ve read all year. The story, from all accounts, is something that stands apart from Miéville’s other works as a minimal, stripped down affair. This book was well deserving of the latest round of Hugo Awards, tying with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for the best novel prize.

The City and The City opens with the murder of a woman, which Inspector Tyador Borlú is tasked with investigating. What sets this murder apart is its location in the city state of Besźel. Here, two worlds intersect with one another, two conjoined cities that have long been separated, occupying the same place. The two cities set up a storyline that is highly relevant, as Borlú digs deeper into the crimes that have been committed in order to find the killer, uncovering a vast conspiracy that goes to the very heart of the split of the two cities, and the shadow organization, Breach, that enforces the boundary between the two locations.

The complicated element of The City and The City was this split between the two worlds, and what Miéville has done is nothing short of spectacular: create a profound world, one that touches on some of the most relevant topics in today’s society. The book also does what all good speculative fiction stories should do: take a speculative element, and use that to set a story. Science Fiction / Fantasy readers will find that this book utilizes a single speculative element: the split between worlds. A common enough story element, but there’s no strange devices, mad science or magic gone bad: visitors from one side to another must take their passport with them, and must learn to ‘Unsee’ the other side, or they will run up against the Breach, a shadowy organization that steps in when accidental, and intentional breaches occur.

With the backdrop of speculation, Miéville sets his story in motion, and the pursuit of the woman’s killer. As Borlú digs deeper into the woman’s background, he discovers that her area of study goes to the heart of the separation between the cities, a radical who enflamed nationalists and unificationists on both sides (political groups who sought to unite the two cities) and uncovers a spectacular conspiracy that holds ramifications for both cities.

An underlying strength to this story comes in the world building that Miéville puts together. The cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma recall the nature of places such as Palestine and Israel, East and West Berlins, and Yugoslavia: distinct nations, ethnic groups and political organizations that share the same territory, borders and physical space, but the people’s hearts are elsewhere. Here, the separation is a reinforced one, where these societies have been split apart physically. Each city maintains its own culture, architecture, clothing, and languages, and between the two, Ul Qoma represents a modern world, with major foreign investors and trade, while groups in Besźel seek to change their surroundings.

This is where the book is at its strongest: this book is not one that retells the story of real life counterparts, but looks to them for inspiration, while a unique story is crafted around the inspiration that sets the world into motion. Miéville has put together a unique story that takes the bare minimum of speculative elements, while telling a story that is relatable to the modern reader. As such, the book sheds some insights into the mentality of some of the problems of the world: this accomplishes everything that science and fantasy fiction should be doing, and as such, The City and The City succeed wildly.

Miéville’s novel is one that slowly unfolds as the story progresses forward. What starts as what appears to be a fairly straight forward murder mystery (abet with strange surroundings) becomes larger as Borlú goes further and further with his case, travelling to Ul Qoma and eventually, committing an act of Breach in the course of his investigation.

The book is not without its flaws, and while the book lives up to much of what it intends to do, I found myself wishing that there was a bit more to some of the elements. Breach, an organization built to separate the two cities, doesn’t fully satisfy upon its reveal to the reader, and where there was much discussion about the nature of Breach, and an alternate, third city (Orciny), which never came together as expected, and the unexpected result isn’t quite as interesting.

The City and The City is a marvelous book, one that is both fast paced and immersive, a read that I found gripping, rich and easily the one of the best books that I’ve read all year.

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6 thoughts on “China Miéville’s Tale of Two Cities: The City and The City

  1. great review. i loved this book front to back. i wanted to see a bit of social change in the two cities; they seemed annoyingly static to me. of course they’ve invested a lot in dividing the two cities, but they remark about how that partition changed over time (they fought two wars with each other!). i wanted the investigation to be linked to some change in the partition relevant to modern life. however, this is a minor complaint. i’ve been a fan of china’s before, this book made me a devoted one.

    • It did feel a bit constrained, and it was a bit limited between the two stories.

      I think that I was a little more concerned with trying to visualize just how the cities were split, and how people could see each other from the other side. I am happy that they didn’t focus on the breach and all that: that would have undermined the book considerably.

      No, the book is set amongst the speculative background, and just runs with it – I wish that the plot had been linked in a little more, but on its own, it’s a fantastic read, minor flaws nonwithstanding.

  2. i think the fact that they -didn’t- focus on Breach more is what made it so believable. if it had become the overwhelming point of the storyline — well.

    the focus on the people and the mystery made the story for me, i think.

    thanks for this, Andrew — i’m glad to be able to continue this discussion!

    • I agree. I would have liked to have seen a bit more, and for things to be tied together, but it worked well on its own. Breach, and the nature of Breach were a central focus, but it didn’t turn into the characters attempting to change the world – that would have made it a very typical novel, where it is now a very atypical one.

  3. Good review mate, and I am glad you enjoyed this novel. China is on my must read list of authors and I eagerly await his new works because they are always thought provoking.

    On reading this book I was desperate for more about Breach and Orciny, and grasped each clue as they were given but admire the fact that these elements were left pretty much off stage where I think they played a far better role for not being explored.

    • Thanks! I’ve got Kraken up next, but I’m not totally sure when I’ll get to it. In reflection, it’s probably better that there was a minimal amount of explaination – this, I thought, helped with the story and worldbuilding, setting them as absolutes, but not pulling it in as much, but it would have been nice to see just a little more here and there.

      I found this book to be a great companion to some of the other books/FIlms that I’ve read/seen thus far this year: River of Gods, The Windup Girl, Inception, etc.

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