“There is no case,” he told her. “There’s a series of random and implausible crises that make no sense other than if you believe the most dramatic possible shit. And there’s a dead girl at the end of it all.”
Inspector Tyador Borlu lives and works in the city of Beszel. As the story opens, he is investigating the murder of a woman found dead in a quiet Beszel street. She is identified as Mahalia Geary, a foreign student attending Beszel’s university. What starts out as a standard murder investigation quickly becomes more complex as Inspector Borlu’s inquiries lead him to the “neighboring” city of Ul Qoma. He joins forces with local Detective Quissim Dhatt and they attempt to unravel the truth about the murdered woman’s connections with both cities.
China Mieville is yet another writer whose work I’ve promised myself to read more of. I enjoyed the weirdness of Perdido Street Station and was blown away by The Scar. What a swaggering, swashbuckling ride that was! His 2009 novel The City and The City has been on my must-read list for a while. A few years back, I started a “challenge” to read all the BSFA Best Novel Winners, one of which being Mieville’s book. Unfortunately, I only got through ten of the winners before the temptation of other-great-books proved too powerful to resist.
The City and the City won the BSFA Best Novel Award in 2010, as well as the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. It also tied for the 2010 Hugo Award with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. That’s a lot of awards. So, it must be a great book, right?
YES! The City and the City is an outstanding book. Mieville has written it as a hardboiled police procedural with a truly brilliant concept. (If you don’t wish to know what this concept is then please skip ahead to the next paragraph.) As can be grasped from the book’s title, the story is set in two cities: Beszel and Ul Qoma. These wonderfully named places are fictional cities found somewhere in Eastern Europe. This being a China Mieville book, the two cities exist simultaneously in the same location. How the author makes this fascinating concept work should be saved for the reader to discover.
If you are familiar with China Mieville’s writing, then you will know that he has a penchant for the weird. I can still remember the impact Perdido Street Station had on me when I first read it. The author’s fantastic descriptions, his detailed world-building, the bizarre and unique characters which populate his stories, all led to an unforgettable reading experience. Well, The City and the City is a lot more accessible than Mieville’s Bas-Lag series of books. It’s not as freaky-strange, either. But it still oozes a unique atmosphere with its two titular cities and their inner workings.
Exploring this world through the eyes of Inspector Borlu made for compelling reading. He is a solid character, foul-mouthed at times, and relentless in his search for the truth. Mieville has fun playing with the good cop/bad cop trope as the narrative shifts forward. Borlu’s methods seem tough and uncompromising until we meet Detective Dhatt in Ul Qoma. I won’t reveal any more except to say that I would hate to be caught up in an interrogation with Ul Qoma’s finest.
The City and the City is a great book. It rewards the reader’s attention by offering its secrets in stages as the author builds his world. It feels like a book that can be enjoyed more than once with the reader discovering even more on a re-read. A four-part television adaptation by the BBC was broadcast in 2018. I’ve seen episode one and thought it was pretty good. I haven’t been able to watch the other episodes yet, but I will if I can access them.