Just a quick run-through of the awards this novel has won – the Hugo Award in 2010, the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel also in 2010, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel still in the same year, and that’s just to mention a few – should be sufficient to impress a prospective reader. Fantasy or sci-fi readers, in particular, would know that they’d be in for a treat. (The Hugo is, like, the Oscar equivalent for fantasy and sci-fi literature. Neil Gaiman, another favorite, is a Hugo awardee as well.)
But when I read this book last June, I wasn’t even aware of its many accolades. All I know was that it was chosen as the book club’s book for the month of June, that it falls under the genre “new weird,” and that it’s supposed to be about two cities-slash-countries that inexplicably co-exist in the same physical space. Weird enough?
Later, I would read that these cities' inhabitants have to adapt to a life that involves “unseeing,” be wary of the “grosstopical” landscape and “crosshatched” areas, and be careful about having to breach that demarcation line lest the Breach descend upon them. As you may have guessed by now, the two cities – Beszel and Ul Qoma, they are called – are, well, not exactly enemies, but they are not exactly friends, either. Can you imagine how it would be to live in either place?
Once you have accepted this premise, i.e., of Beszel and Ul Qoma occupying the same physical space (but not really), then you will enjoy being taken through a carefully-crafted maze of mystery, crime, political intrigue, and police procedures. Think CSI with a touch of X-Files. When I first heard of the premise, I thought, cool. I started to wonder how life would be like in either city – exciting, I imagine, but also scary. It would be like walking on eggshells all your life. You ought to watch your every move, you need to be cautious of everything you see, you should be able to properly discern the things, people, and places that form part of your territory – under pain of apprehension from the Breach.
The City & The City features Inspector Tyador Borlu, a policeman from Beszel on whose lap falls the difficult task of investigating the murder of American student Mahalia Geary, whose body was found within the territory of Beszel. However, further investigation leads Tyador to believe that Ul Qoma – or at least someone who is in Ul Qoma – may be involved, and what follows thereafter is a thrilling police chase to find the culprit, from Beszel, to Ul Qoma, and to the places in between – if there exists such a place – involving Besz and Ul Qomans alike.
More than just the fantastical premise, I loved how Miéville was able to create these fictional worlds (complete with odd names and invented words) and use them as background to frame an otherwise ordinary police procedural story about a murder. It is the complications brought about by the core premise that emphasized and spiced up the probe and the concomitant hunt for the murderer. How do you go about investigating a case when you are barred by territorial limitations or when you are supposed to ignore – “unsee” – things that are beyond those limits? How do you arrest persons whom you are uncertain whether he or she is within your territory? How do you go about your business when you are always under threat of being arrested by Breach? And who, or what, is Breach?
That’s for me to know and you to find out.
"We are all philosophers here where I am, and we debate among many other things the question of where it is that we live. On that issue I am a liberal. I live in the interstice yes, but I live in both the city and the city."
Book Details: Kindle edition