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Mieville, China - 'The City and The City'
Hardback: 500 pages (May 2009) Publisher: Macmillan ISBN: 1405000171

THE CITY AND THE CITY is an intriguing combination of crime and sci-fi/fantasy. The hero of this story is Detective Tyador Borlu, of the Extreme Crime Squad in Beszel, a fictional city in an unnamed country. Beszel is a highly unusual city - it is one of two cities existing in the same physical space, and the inhabitants of each city are forbidden from even looking at the other city, let alone visiting it or crossing the border lines in anyway, except if they obtain official authorisation to cross at Copula Hall, the twin cities equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie. Borlu, like all Beszel inhabitants, frequently has to “unsee” people, houses and vehicles, for fear of falling foul of the mysterious but terrifying Breach, who have seemingly limitless powers to deal with those who breach the boundaries between the two cities.

Borlu is investigating the murder of an anonymous female found on waste ground, assisted by Corwi, his able young female assistant. They trawl the world of dissidents and extremist groups to try and identify the victim. An anonymous phone call helps Borlu to confirm that the victim was Mahalia Geary, an American archeology student who was working on a dig in Ul Qoma. Mahalia had infuriated dissidents and politicians in both cities by persistently investigating rumours of the existence of a third city, Orsziny, in the gaps between the two cities. She was influenced by the cult success of a banned book by fellow academic Bowden on this subject, who subsequently recanted his views on the existence of the third city. Borlu is eventually sent to Ul Qoma to investigate Mahalia's murder, but quickly becomes frustrated at his guest status and lack of official clout in Ul Qoma and starts to act outside his authority.

China Mieville deals very convincingly with the at times mind-bending aspects of the co-location of the twin cities such as the "cross-hatching" and "topolgangers", and manages to neatly differentiate the atmosphere and culture of the two cities. Beszel ressembles a former Eastern bloc city, and tends towards the drab and dilapidated, whilst Ul Qoma has an Asian flavour in its dress, food, smells and buildings and has recently become ostentatiously wealthier through foreign investment. Even the archaeological remains are more interesting in Ul Qoma.

THE CITY AND THE CITY works enormously well both as a post-Soviet murder mystery in the Olen Steinhauer vein, and as an innovative study of urban dislocation, segregation and Orwellian mind control. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a refreshing change from more conventional police procedurals.

Laura Root, England
September 2009

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 27/09/2009 09:52