Reviewed by Steven Klotz
The City & The City is definitely not the new weird Miéville is known for. (This is the first novel by China Miéville that I’ve read, so my opinion that this book is a departure from his standard fare is based on reviews and other second hand sources.) It’s also not straight forward urban fantasy by any means. Miéville describes it as a cross between a traditional mystery and Orwell’s 1984, however the element that’s center stage in The City & The City is the question: How do we perceive the world around us? The heavy plotting of a traditional mystery and the social commentary of writer channeling Orwell take a back seat to exploration of this question and how it affects the protagonist. As a speculative fiction or mystery fan, it would be easy to just label this a literary novel and reach for the next genre book on your list.
But the fantastical Big Brother that’s intruding upon the familiar IS the mystery. The murders and disappearances that are investigated over the course of the novel are a quest that ultimately leads the protagonist to a confrontation with elements at the core of his reality. Miéville states, in his Crime Novels post:
These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows.
This made me think of Greg Egan’s Quarantine, which is explicitly about quantum mechanics and has a narrative structure that reflects the peculiarities of quantum mechanics. I find it intriguing to think about a quantum narrative in a mostly mundane book and that’s a perfect way to think about this book.
Divided into 3 sections, the first part of the book takes place in Beszel and the second in Ul Qoman, the two titular cities. I particularly enjoyed the verbal gymnastics Miéville performed to describe seeing and unseeing the setting. This element (used often and constantly iterated upon), which might dissuade the unsuspecting reader, makes a subtle appearance in the first sentence of the novel: “I could not see the street or much of the estate.” Coming to terms with the gravity of that statement involves learning the consequences of seeing what should be unseen. Figuring out the rules of Breach was a refreshing experience. In such a diverse literary landscape, exploring a truly new idea is a joy.
By investigating the intrusion of the fantastical and it’s affect on 2 cities, Miéville is using familiar urban fantasy elements (the interstitial and noir) to deconstruct OUR perceptions of the genre. The mysterious Breach intrudes upon the two cities. The phenomena of 2 superimposed and entangled cities intrudes upon Eastern Europe. If Miéville is starting a conversation, he’s asking a question: “How much magic makes a story fantasy?” Despite Miéville’s admonitions that crime novels inevitably end badly, I was quite satisfied with the results. I suspect that The City & The City was written to stand alone, but I can’t help but wonder how an avatar of Breach would fare in the wider mundane world.
An earlier version of this review appeared on MentatJack.com in September 2009.