Happy Thursday my lovely peeps!
Let me tell you, this has been a really good week! Still, I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming weekend because rest I need!
For this week’s book review, I’ll be featuring The City & The City by China Miéville. I started this book a while ago so this review is now truly long overdue!
When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. To investigate, Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to its equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the vibrant city of Ul Qoma.
But this is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a seeing of the unseen. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one.
As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them more than their lives. What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.
Wow, I don’t even know where to start with this one. I have an intimidating blank draft in front of me and all these emotions I want to lay out on it, but nothing’s actually coming out because I’m having one hell of a reading hangover and it’s not even the following day yet! I had the same feeling when I’d finished Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and I thought I found the gold of golds in that book; it ended up being my 2022 book of the year choice and replaced my all time favorite book as well. I didn’t think anything could top it.
The City & The City did, not in every aspect, there were plenty of things about Perdido Street Station that stuck with me, the phenomenal and otherworldly worldbuilding, the tone & atmosphere, the characters, and plot (I never got over the empty feeling it left behind after I finished that last sentence)…but The City & The City came in a hard challenger, contending for the same, favorite book, spot. I still prefer Perdido Street Station, but if this book didn’t leave me in shock, I’d be lying.
OK, the warm up about my history with Miéville is over and that means hopefully the words of phrase for The City & The City can start flowing.
This was an insane book. I still can barely wrap my head around the concept of it, something so clever and original that I just ate the whole book up like a dessert that needed savoring. And savor I did. Because, no matter my heaps of praise and how much I liked it, it took nearly 3 weeks to finish. I read so slowly, wanting to read a couple chapters a night, annotate as much as I could, and sleep on everything I’d read before continuing to do the same every day.
This story begins with Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad arriving on scene of where a body has been reported to the police, a woman with multiple stab wounds. When it’s discovered that she’s a student and that she was researching into something much larger, the investigation takes off in a direction that Borlu may have never imagined himself to be in.
The concept here is that, there are two cities that occupy the same geological location, which is why our title is called the city and the city. Beszel and Ul Qoma, are fictional locations but sits right on our real map, somewhere in the Eastern Europe, and the two cities share the same location, but are isolated by rules, regulations, and its people. The two cities may literally share the same physical place, but there’s nothing that really ties them together other than that. That’s all they share as everything from language, culture, clothing, banned COLORS, and even architecture is different for both cities. Citizens of both cities grow up and learn to unsee and unhear the other side, to pretend that they don’t exist. Imagine walking by as someone from Beszel, side by side, next to someone from Ul Qoma, but you can’t see them because you’ve learned to unsee them, almost as if shrouding the otherside in a blurry vision and to completely disacknowledge their existent, even if their purse might be close enough to brush up against your jacket. To get into Ul Qoma from Beszel, as Borlu had to do, you would have to cross in practically like you do when leaving and entering a new country. To come to either cities as a foreigner, such as as an American, you need to go classes to help you learn the laws and to teach you how to unsee or unhear, the other city (since the act of unseeing/hearing doesn’t come naturally to foreigners).
There had once been a fire grosstopically close to my apartment. It had been contained in one house, but a house not in Besźel, that I had unseen. So I had watched footage of it piped in from Ul Qoma, on my local TV, while my living room windows had been lit by the fluttering red glow of it.
To break this unspoken law, would mean to invoke Breach and up to a certain point in the book, nobody really knows what Breach is (even by the end of the book, only Borlu and the readers really get to know Breach a little better). Nobody seems to be able see them and to be taken by Breach means you might never be heard from again. Their presence “can’t be explained” and honestly nobody really knows much about Breach other than that they seem to have eyes everywhere. In fact, I honestly thought that they were some sort of omnipresent entity, like aliens but more eldritch and unimaginable. They seem to watch for all signs and moments of breach as, while you might not be whisked away if you accidentally didn’t unsee or unhear fast enough, if you, let’s say, smuggle drugs into the other city without properly crossing over (in which the crime of smuggling might have the police at your door and that’s FAR FAR favorable than to smuggle while Breaching and to have Breach show up) or if you walk into a cafe from Beszel and emerge from Ul Qoma.
The second case was a man who had killed his wife and when we closed in on him, in stupid terror he breached—stepped into a shop in Besźel, changed his clothes, and emerged into Ul Qoma. He was by chance not apprehended in that instance, but we quickly realised what had happened. In his frantic liminality neither we nor our Ul Qoman colleagues would touch him, though we and they knew where he went, hiding in Ul Qoman lodgings. Breach took him and he was gone too.
The story, moreorless, focuses on this, although larger elements gets added in later on and by the end, it’s a chaotic mess of things. What started as trying to investigate a murder, a “simple” murder of a lady in a single city, soon expands to include both and then things just drop off into insanity because it turns out the lady wasn’t just a student, but a student who discovered something big and bad and eh, as much as Borlu wants to seek justice for the slain woman, not everyone is that keen on investigating too far into details, lest you accidentally invoke Breach.
I could go into the characters aspect, I did like Borlu and his partners in this investigation, Corwi from Beszel and Dhatt from Ul Qoma, but my biggest set of notes focused on the world building. I have so many marked pages and sections for world building in this book, that I actually ran out of one of my flag’s colors and had to start using a different color dedicated to world building.
All in all, a fantastic book that I can’t truly do justice in just a simple review. The characters were good, the world building was phenomenal, and I enjoyed the somewhat choppy and weird writing as well. It was a deeply enjoyable read and, as slow as I took it, it wasn’t as hard to read as Perdido Street Station which I actually found to be quite dense and I had no choice but to grab the dictionary app again and again until I just gave up and borrowed the Kindle version so I could just highlight words instead. The concept was what loved the most and that was the aspect that blew Perdido Street Station out of the water because it was just so…entertaining to envision this world where, there’s nothing exactly superstitious (besides Breach) although a slight element of spooooky is still there and this whole separation isn’t formed by bricks and fences but by our eyes and ears. Another great Miéville read, this time combining the genre of New Weird with a bit of detective case. Wonderfully done, I might once again need a brain cleanser after this, something easy and not blowing my mind.