Thursday, July 15, 2010

The City and the City by China Miéville


“He went further – said that Orciny wasn’t just somewhere that had existed in the gaps between Qoma and Besźel since their foundings or coming together or splitting. …he said it was still here.”


“Exactly. A secret colony. A city between the cities, its inhabitants living in plain sight.”

“What? Doing what? How?”

“Unseen, like Ul Qomans to Besź and vice versa. Walking the streets unseen but overlooking the two. Beyond the Breach. And doing, who knows? Secret agendas?”

-The City and the City

China Miéville


China Miéville’s The City and the City is difficult to place in a category. The plot is driven primarily by a murder mystery, and the whole story reads a lot like a classic mystery novel. However, Miéville also incorporates politics, familiar societal and social dynamics, and a number of fantastical elements. To say it is a mystery novel, fantasy novel, or social commentary wouldn’t do it justice. It is all three. And to consider attempting to summarize it is, at the very least, rather daunting, but I will certainly try my best.

The story opens in the fictional city of Besźel, a seemingly typical Eastern European city. A girl is discovered dead on one of the city streets and detective Tyador Borlú of the Besźel Extreme Crime Squad is called in – our point of view character. He begins the investigation, but soon discovers that beyond the murder mystery is another twist. The girl they’ve found dead isn’t a Besźel citizen. She is from “neighboring city” Ul Qoma.

Besźel and Ul Qoma are unlike normal neighboring cities. Rather than existing next to one another, we are told that the two cities occupy the same space at the same time. From birth, citizens of each city are taught to “unsee” the citizens, vehicles, and buildings in the other city. In certain “crosshatched” sections of town – shared sections where there are particularly high levels of activity in both cities – they navigate around each other out of habit with learned ease. Citizens of Besźel are forbidden to interact with or even look at citizens of Ul Qoma and vice versa. If caught doing so, the citizen in question will invoke “Breach” – an entity of sorts that travels between the two cities and maintains order by ensuring the two never interact.

As detective Borlú continues to investigate the murdered girl, he discovers that there is much more to her story than anyone could have imagined. She was a scholar at an Ul Qoma university and was studying the possible existence of a third city – Orciny. Supposedly, Orciny is a myth, but the girl had begun to believe in its existence. She had been under the impression that it existed between the two cities – in the sections that Besźel citizens assumed were part of Ul Qoma and vice versa.

As Orciny is said to be an extremely powerful city, the investigation of it raises an entirely new set of questions for Borlú. Did Orciny really exist? Had it been citizens of that third city who killed the girl? Was Orciny at war with the mysterious Breach?

Detective Borlú’s investigation takes him out of his home in Besźel, into Ul Qoma, and even into the mysterious Breach in order to uncover the murderers and the truth behind the city in between the cities.


I’m going to give this book a rating of 4 out of 5 stars.

The idea for this novel is excellent, fascinating even. The two cities existing together never felt unbelievable to me. I loved reading about citizens “unseeing” one another – especially when, say, a citizen doesn’t recognize that the person they’re seeing is from the other city and they have to quickly “unsee” them once they realize it. Fantastic premise and well-executed as far as setting and plot are concerned. Miéville set up these two cities incredibly well with their different cultures, customs, and even different languages. I had a clear picture in my mind of what was going on at all times.

However, this book was told from a first-person point of view. I normally have no aversion to this style of storytelling at all, but I have never read a first person narrative and felt this distant from the main character and, in fact, ALL the characters. I felt no compassion when characters were shot, killed. I didn’t much care if the point of view character went through any emotional hardships. I just felt so incredibly disconnected from all of them. For this, I took away one star.

Overall, I finished this novel feeling happy that I had read it. Though it was complex and occasionally a bit too confusing, the ending made it worthwhile. I still find myself thinking about it days after finishing, which I think is the mark of a good read. It is definitely worth picking up whether you’re in the mood for fantasy, mystery, political commentary…or perhaps all three.


  1. Wow this sounds really cool! I've read books with cities existing together, often in some sort of alternate world, but I'm really drawn to this whole 'unseeing' thing. Must go read now!!

    Good review, thanks for bringing this to our attention!

  2. The novel sounds very unique, which is exactly the kind of thing I'm always looking for. On top of that some of the things I've been reading about Mieville since you brought him to my attention are very intriguing. I like his take on the fantasy genre, finding tolkien-esque fantasy to be stifling. I couldn't agree more! Not that don't like LOTR, but I really don't think every writer who writes fantasy should have to do so in a single work's shadow. There's too much creativity out there for us to start putting a cap on it with absurd genre rules.

    Thanks for posting, Amber!

  3. Great review, Amber!
    This sounds like a really interesting book, although I have to say the lack of character connection you describe makes me a bit leery; character is what I follow most in any story, and if I can't connect with at least one character, it's sometimes hard for me to get into it.
    The premise sounds too cool to pass up, though, so I think I'll give this one a shot.

  4. I sold a copy of this at the store to a customer who loves urban fantasy and weird SF. It sounded like the perfect combo of the two to me. I hope she likes it.