China Miéville calls himself a writer of “weird fiction,” in the tradition of Lovecraft, and that works for me, since he seems to otherwise defy easy categorization. Dark contemporary fantasy/steampunk/mystery/horror is how I’ve described Perdido Street Station to friends in the past. How can I sum up his most recent effort? That’s what I’ll spend this review trying to do.
There is one thematic thread that runs through apparently all of Miéville’s radically different published works. That’s a very strong sense of place. For certain types of fantasy, authors might be praised for their impressive “world-building.” Miéville, on the other hand, has shown himself to be quite adept at city-building. He certainly favours urban environments as his fantastical settings. The New Crobuzon that featured in several of his previous novels is very well-realized; the titlular Un Lun Dun of his last novel is reportedly delightful; but he’s surpassed himself in this most recent work.
The story opens with a murder, a mystery, and a world-weary cop, Detective Borlu, resigned nevertheless to see it through. It seems we have the recipe for a typical police procedural (which is by no means a bad thing in my book). But this one doesn’t take place on the mean streets of New York City, or Chicago, or even on the same continent as those cities. We find ourselves instead somewhere in Southeastern Europe, either in the Balkans or near there, crossing between two very small countries that you’ve probably never heard of, called Beszél and Ul Qoma.
They’re city states, really, the novel’s titular the city & the city. The mannerisms, language, the sense of a rich culture informed by an equally rich history — though we, the visitors, can pick up on only small gleanings of what this history may be — all this and thousands of other details we may not even be conscious of suggest that the author must have spent a significant amount of time in these related but unique country-cities while researching his book.
When you open the pages of this novel, you are there in Beszél, to the same degree that you may be transported to Marseilles or Zürich in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series. You can almost breathe in the architecture of their buildings, the flavours of their cuisine, the gruff warmth of their people. But here’s the kicker: there is no Beszél, nor Ul Qoma.
Why create not one, but two fictional cities, to serve as the immediate setting within our otherwise non-fantastical modern world? Setting a familiar type of story in such an unfamiliar locale at least would prevent this book from being a Rankin clone, but it does more than just that. In fact, the city & the city are at the very heart of this novel. Their unique historical and, shall we say, architectural relationship is at the very heart of what it means to be either Ul Qoman or Besz.
Imagine two trees that each sprouted though neither had quite enough room to grow. At some point in the distant past, roots, trunk, and branches became helplessly entangled. It is more than a single tree, but it is difficult to distinguish as two. Cities also are born and slowly grow. To respect and guard the twisted borders between two cities so unnaturally woven together in a single space, the utmost care would need be taken. Any citizen, even a respected policzai, must respect the invisible boundary at all times.
The City & the City describes a malformed dual-entity comprised of stitched-together patches of two separate nations. This street is Besz, while the next is Ul Qoman. Separate sections of one city-country or another are connected via cross-hatched areas, where both Besz and Ul Qomans may walk, but each remains in his own country, neither seeing nor hearing those ghosts who belong to the other.
This is a place with countless psychological borders, created only by the willing groupthink and careful unseeing of all its citizens. To fail to unsee is breach, a crime beyond any other, and enforced by Breach, a shadow organization existing between the cities only to lunge out of the shadows at any who dare to violate the taboo.
The unique geopolitical landscape of the city & the city complicates what would indeed be a simple murder investigation elsewhere in the world. Because here the victim appears to have been killed in one city but dumped in another, suggesting a forbidden passage over one of the invisible borders, an action much worse than the murder itself. What’s a world weary cop to do, when it seems every avenue of investigation leads himself closer to breach? Indeed, as he ventures further and further down the rabbit hole, Borlu even begins to suspect there are greater and more mysterious forces at work than Breach itself.
With acknowledgments to writers as diverse as Chandler, Kafka, and Kubin (to say nothing of Orwell), I don’t need to tell you this won’t be your typical detective story. But given this is Miéville, would you have really expected a typical anything?