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Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: The City & The City

Unlike the other two China Mieville novels reviewed here, Perdido Street Station and The Scar, The City and The City is not set in the world of Bas-Lag. Instead, it's set in a contemporary world, somewhere in Europe. The story is about Inspector Borlu, who's assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman found in a park.

While ostensibly a detective novel, the novel is really about two cities, named Beszel and Ul Quoma. What's special about the cities are that they're super-imposed upon each other. Now, coming from his previous novels, I would expect there to be some fantastical explanation behind the super-imposition, but instead, half the mystery is figuring out the details of the super-imposition and how the two cities work, as well as the forces behind Breach, a power that operates to stop people from taking advantage of the super-imposition.

OK, so far so weird, which is good: Mieville is great at coming up with weird situations and then explaining all the details behind them. He works through all the implications of his own rules, involving the special training the cities have to give to visiting tourists so they do not accidentally Breach.

But then, the mystery gets into earnest and we get drawn behind the scenes to what's going on, and everything breaks down. Why? First of all, there's no reveal behind the nature of the super-imposition. We don't find out the history behind the two cities and their special relationship, nor do we ever see how it came to be. Furthermore, when the reveal shows up behind the nature of Breach and its enforcement, I at least, don't see how this could actually be a stable set up. It's quite clear to me that one city would have dominated the other through the course of human history, and we would have just one city and no Breach at the end. Even the resolution of the mystery makes no sense: the gains as depicted by the plot in the milieu could not possibly provide motivation for the characters involved!

If this was a first novel by an unknown author I might have been willing to brush all these problems away and say: "Great effort. Look for more stuff by him." But this is Mieville, and I feel cheated, as though he worked through all the mechanical parts of his plot device and setting, but didn't think through the implications of how historical forces would have acted to demolish this extremely unstable setup. While you might argue that "it's fantasy", I feel that the rigorous nature of the rules he's imposed on the setting as well as the nature of a mystery novel dictates that such logical inconsistencies not be overlooked.

I don't see how I could recommend this novel to anyone other than a die-hard Mieville fan, and of course, if you're one, you would have read it already.


Allen Knutson said...

(Indeed, I have.)

Was it EVER explained why being in Breach is so bad that it needs to be policed? Or, equivalently, what the consequences were of Breach for other than the Breacher?

BTW it's Beszel (the Hungarian verb "he/she/it speaks"), not Besel.

Piaw Na said...

Thanks. Right, it's never explained why Breach is so bad.

Allen Knutson said...

Incidentally, Kraken is a lot more fun.