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Minireview: The City & the City, by China Miéville

The City & the City is a deeply strange book… but then again, since it’s by China Miéville, that’s a given. I absolutely love many of his books, while sometimes, most recently in “The Kraken”, I can see what he’s trying to do but it just leaves me cold. This book lands squarely in the “absolutely loved it” department, in fact I think it’s one of his all-time best.

This is a stand-along book, not connected to any of his other stories. It’s set in the dilapidated city of Beszel, in some vaguely Eastern European country. It’s also set in the city of Ul Qoma, which… ok, here I have to post a warning, since it’s impossible to discuss this book without some spoilers.

So, you have been warned. If you have yet to read this book, I suggest you stop reading this, right now, and go read the book. Welcome back, afterwards.

Ok, so Ul Quoma both is Beszel and and very much is not. It occupies the same physical space, but it logically separate. Citizens of Beszel do not see citizens of Ul Quoma, and vice versa. Oh, they could see them, but they are conditioned since childhood to “unsee” things that do not belong. If you want to visit Ul Quoma from Beszel, you need to go to the border checkpoint (in the center of both cities), and then, having officially crossed over, are free to go back to the same exact spot – at which point you can see Ul Quoma, but cannot see Beszel anymore.

Sometimes, people accidentally see things they are not supposed to, they fail to “unsee”. This can result in bad things happening. Very bad things.

All this very slowly dawns on the reader, through the narrator: inspector Tyador Borlú of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad. A native of Baszel, he describes everything in a matter-of-fact tone which, initially makes everything seem just like a routine police procedural. Slowly, the reader becomes aware just how weird this supposedly-normal city is, and that it’s about much more than a routine murder mystery.

The plot? Initially, it’s about a murdered young woman, a citizen of Ul Quoma found in Beszel – with no record of her having crossed over. Slowly, Inspector Borlú is drawn deeper into a plot that seems to involve much deeper and darker things, including a legendary “third city” co-existing with the other two, hiding in some mysterious dimension just outside reach. Sometimes people get too close to the real truth, and vanish, never to be heard of again.

It’s a fascinating and unique tale, with hints of Kafka and others. It teeters on the edge of “science fiction”, while arguably not being that. It also has elements of urban fantasy, without quite being that either. The fantastic, partly anonymous faux Eastern Europe locale even has some themes in common with Al Amarja (from “Over the Edge”), without being tongue-in-cheek.

An impressive book from an already impressive writer.

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