If you were walking down the street and saw a car crash right in front of you, your first instinct would be to stop and stare, right?
Well, in the city of Beszel, that could put you in serious violation of the law- if the crash came from the city of Ul Qoma, which exists at the same geographical location.
Yeah, I’m not really sure how that works either. But them’s the rules for The City and The City by China Mieville. I eventually ran with this, but still spent an ordinate amount of time trying to figure out the geography of the two cities involved.
My first thought was that the two cities co-existed on different physical planes that happened to converge at that particular geographical location. Which… okay, don’t ask me how that would work, but it still makes more sense to me than what I think is the actual answer- that the cities just are sort of squished together, with one street being a Beszel street and the next one over being Ul Qoman.
This book began as something of a- I don’t want to say straightforward, but definitely recognizable- murder mystery in a setting that wasn’t the world as we knew it today. It was possibly from the future, possibly just alternate history, but the basic premise initially seemed to be that there was a murder in Beszel and Inspector Tyador Borlu was trying to solve the crime.
Then he started referring to things like cross-hatched locations, unseeing, and grosstopic areas and my head just started spinning. Eventually I figured out that the two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, are somehow right on top of each other and that for anyone to cross between the two cities- or even acknowledge that the other city is there- is to be in a state of Breach. If a hapless citizen makes that mistake, he or she must face the wrath of the authority (also known as Breach), and be whisked away in a bag never to be seen again.
This makes life very difficult for Inspector Borlu, since the girl whose death he is investigating came from Ul Qoma. And he is very much in Beszel. Getting through the proper channels to go to Ul Qoma and conduct investigations is plagued with bureaucratic obstacles and pitfalls, and given that his first good tip came from an illegal phone call made from Ul Qoma, The further he digs into the background of the girl’s murder, the more he uncovers about the linked histories of Beszel and Ul Qoma. What he finds makes for some seriously entertaining reading.
In case you couldn’t tell, there is a LOT going on in this book, and I spent most of the first third going like this:
minus throwing the book out the window.
But gradually it started to come together, and by the time Borlu finally got his clearance to travel to Ul Qoma, I couldn’t put the book down. The world that Mieville had constructed was just SO COOL, even if I couldn’t figure out the mechanics for the life of me. I was so absorbed in the split histories and tricky politics by having two cities side by side that I didn’t care about understanding the full details of how that worked. The main problem of the book lies in the cities’ close proximity, and I don’t think it really matters how that works. But I still think it would make more sense that the cities are on parallel planes of existence, weird though that may seem. And the reason I think it makes more sense is that over the course of the story Borlu finds hints of a third city, one that hides from Beszel and Ul Qoma, and I find it very hard for Borlu to believe that a third city could hide between the two without there being some strange parallel world explanation.
But again, I think I’m probably wrong about this. All the hints in the story indicate that we’re dealing with simple shared territory. But as I said before, my persistent misreading didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the story at all. I could see some readers being disappointed or let down by the ending, but for me it was a total mind screw that I couldn’t possibly have predicted. Even with ten or so pages to go, I couldn’t believe where the story was heading, and when it ended I was practically slavering for more. The story was wrapped up, but there was clearly so much to know about this world, and the ending of the book meant that I wasn’t going to get that.
Conclusion: Definitely read it if you like mental wrestling matches with your stories. If you don’t, you may well find yourself emulating the image up above.
Personally, I loved it, even if even if it left my thinking capacity bruised black and blue.