This is a splendid hard-boiled detective novel set in a most bizarre and fantastic location.
John’s Thoughts: A murdered woman is found in Beszel, a crumbling city located somewhere around the edges of Eastern Europe, and it falls to Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad to solve the case. As he starts to investigate, it soon becomes apparent that this is no simple murder and he gets drawn ever deeper into politics, nationalism and possible conspiracies. You’re also gradually made aware of the “neighboring” city of Ul Qoma, though it’s unlike any neighborhood you’ve come across before.
Beszel and Ul Qoma essentially occupy the same space, but with borders defined more by personal perceptions than by concrete or wire. The citizens of each of the two cities steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the presence of the other, and they go to extreme lengths to ensure they “unsee” and “unhear” each other. Indeed, it is a serious crime (known as a breach) to communicate with or even to observe people in the other city. There is a secretive and all-powerful force (known as the Breach) which very strictly enforces these laws.
This might not be quite so bad but for the fact that the boundary between the two cities is intestinal and often buildings which are next to each other are in fact in different cities. Then there are “crosshatched” areas which are neither total Beszel nor total Ul Qoma; people from both places may walk or drive through such areas, but under no circumstances must they commit a breach. Impossible? Well, right from birth the customs, laws and behavior are drilled into people.
Unfortunately for Inspector Borlu, it soon becomes apparent that the woman was murdered in Ul Qoma and her body dumped in Beszel. Eventually he has to navigate the respective bureaucracies and cross the border in order to work with his Ul Qoman counterpart. The Ul Qomans may be living on some identical streets to the Besz, but they have a different culture, dress differently, think differently and have a different language. What they do have in common is a distrust of their neighbors and a fear of incurring the wrath of the Breach.
The murder case quickly gets even more complicated. Borlu’s dogged determination to find the truth and to hunt down the murderer starts to put his and others’ lives at risk.
This is an interesting and unique plot. Kudos to Mieville for having a great imagination and for bringing this strange world to life. On one level this is a straightforward detective story that just happens to be set in an odd location. On another level? Well, I guess it’s easy to draw parallels between the two cities and man’s inability to live peacefully with neighbors or to mix gracefully with different cultures. Once you refuse to see and accept people for what they are, bad things inevitably happen.
I enjoyed this book a lot. I have to say that due to the complex story and the plethora of strange names it wasn’t the easiest of reads. I frequently found myself re-reading sections or referring back to earlier pages to try and make sense of things, but it was well worth the effort. I’d rate the book 4 stars, and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good crime story or a bit of urban fantasy.
This book has been nominated for and has won a variety of recent awards (data via Goodreads):
- Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (2010)
- Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009)
- Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (2010)
- Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel (2010)
- British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel (2010)
- The City & The City (ARC copy)
- by China Mieville
- ISBN: 978-0-345-49751-2
- Pages 312: paperback
- Del Rey Books, 2009
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