Book review: China Mievelle's thoroughly compelling crime thriller, 'The City & the City'

China Miéville has made his name via award-winning, genre-bending titles such as King Rat, Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council. Now, in The City & the City, he sets out to bend yet another genre, that of the police procedural, and he succeeds brilliantly.
There is a corpse, of course. And cops. But not long after these staples of the procedural are provided, we realize that we are on unfamiliar terrain, literally. For Miéville’s genius here stems from his telling a seemingly familiar story set in a wholly unfamiliar world.
The titular cities are Beszel and Ul Quoma. Though decidedly Eastern European-ish, the cities do not, in fact, exist; however, by novel’s end, the reader would swear they do. While drawing the reader into Inspector Taydor Borlú’s investigation of the murder, Miéville deftly sketches in the details of these two cities, divided and united by a shared border. He has even invented languages (Besz and Illitan), and Borlú’s non-native English allows Miéville to craft an idiosyncratic, hugely interesting narrative voice. 
Though the occasional Renault or iPod is to be seen in one or the other of the cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma are isolated places (albeit ones served by BeszAir and Illitania). They are inhospitable neighbors separated since “the Cleavage,†places of Orwellian paranoia heavily policed on both sides. A third place, Orciny, factors in as well. Is this the ancestral city, known now by its much-sought artifacts? Or is it merely a myth perpetuated by “Breach,†the mysterious force maintaining order in this dystopian world, disappearing those who “breach†via such infractions as failing to “unsee†their neighbors?
Piecing together these worlds as an amateur ethnographer — their land, their language, their lives — is as much fun as sleuthing alongside Borlú. Yet that is not to say that Miéville slights the precepts of the procedural here. Rather, he expands upon it in this extraordinary, wholly engaging read.
James Reese’s latest book is “The Dracula Dossier.â

The City & the City
By China Miéville
Random House/Del Rey, 312 pages, $25

Book review: China Mievelle's thoroughly compelling crime thriller, 'The City & the City' 05/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 10:47am]

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