BSFA Best Novel 2010 Nominee: The City & The City by China Miéville (Pan)

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Title: The City & The City
Author: China Miéville 
Pages: 500
Genre: Fantasy
Standalone/Series: Standalone
Release: Out Now in Paperback
Publisher: Pan

Synopsis

When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Bes?el, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.

Comments/Thoughts/Analysis

This is not an easy book to read. It introduces a place that  could, in an alternative reality, exist. But even then it would be isolated. It’s not a place you could just arrive into without being in Breach. You would need to training to unsee and unhear the other city that is all around you. The city that shares much of the same space but isn’t allowed to be seen or heard and so isn’t there and whose citizens are different but the same. It has been that way for centuries.

Almost everyone accepts it and almost everyone accepts that is the way it is. That is until a body is found. A murder forces Inspector Tyador Borlú to see what is unseen and hear what is unheard. 

And that’s what makes it difficult to get into this novel. You arrive in a city that has mental rather than a physical barrier between it and another city. Adjusting to the references and the paradoxes takes some getting used to. China doesn’t help by keeping a lot of it unexplained allowing you to struggle your way through.

But then he starts explaining. Not info dumping.  Then the story opens up and the connections are explored more. But by that time you’ve hopefully accepted the reality of The City & The City and believe in it.

Belief plays a big part of this novel. Belief and fear. As no one wants to be in Breach. They are removed, erased, without any outside justice. Breach can happen in either city and the consequences are the same for both.

The hard part of this story is that it’s an exploration, a study of an environment as told through a murder investigation. There is development, though more realisation, in the characters but the question is at the end what has changed?

With characters that can only live in a story and a story that can’t be told without those characters means that it places it can feel very mechanical as the characters lose a sense of freewill.

Let me explain. All stories can only happen to their characters. But in this case the world would collapse if there wasn’t a murder. There would be no way of explaining this strange arrangement. And there would be no arrangement.

This is not a story to read if you need to feel for the characters involved. They are incidental, vital yes, but they are fulfilling the roles needed to examine China’s fascination the urban environment and how willing we can be not see what is in front is in front of us if someone tells us not to.

BSFA thoughts

So this is one of the 4 chosen books out of 94 or so that were shortlisted for the  BSFA Best Novel.

I can see why it’s here. There is an amazing technical skill in getting across the concept of two cities that are separate halves of the same place but don’t make a whole. And relaying the fact that each set of citizens is trained from birth to unsee and unhear the other city and it’s citizens that are there but not allowed to be seen or heard.

As a crime story it works. There is a crime, an investigation and a proper moment of revelation. But it is hard to read as detective story. It’s not easy to get into. Definitely worth the investment but I wish there was someway of balancing the stories and the characters.

It has to be tight and hard. It wouldn’t work if the reader wasn’t immersed and challenged. It deserves to stand out and be on a short list but I’m not sure if it’s my winner.

Summary

China Miéville continues to challenge his readers with this murder story set in two cities that are mentally rather than physically separated. He skilfully creates an environment where unseeing and unhearing are instinctual. And were the consequences of breaching by seeing and hearing the other place is swift and remorseless.

This is a proper murder story with a detective, victim and a murderer but their motives and their actions are more complicated than they first appear.

Once you get into the place and adapt the story itself takes over but it does take a suspension of questing and acceptance that the citizens of each city accept and understand their situation. And that those citizens that question it ride a very fine line.

In the end a challenging exploration of how much we can and will accept even if the only thing that is holding us back is not crossing an imaginary line.

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