Skip to content

Book Review: The City & The City, China Mieville

Time is precious for me having a kid and a demanding job, so I’m pleased I’ve managed to find the time to read The City & The City, China Mieville’s (very successful) attempt at the crime thriller genre.

I’m not typically a reader of crime fiction, however I’ve really enjoyed some of Mieville’s urban fantasy work in the past, and know he’s a smart, well-researched writer who is prone to a bit of genre-hopping … his plots often take unexpected twists, for which this work is no exception.

The City

Melville, writing as he often does from the first person perspective, describes an inspector sent to investigate a grimy murder in Beszel, a city “on the outskirts of Europe”, which we hear is jostling for economic position with it’s more successful neighbour, Ul Quoma.

But it’s pretty soon we realise that this other city isn’t in a separate location from Beszel, but in the same place. It’s quite difficult to describe, but you get parts of the topography which are located in Beszel, but some are in Ul Quoma. So you could live “gross topically” (a word coined to describe a physical location which nevertheless is in a different political locality — that of the other city) next to someone who lives in a totally different city. A city for which, if you wanted to visit them, you needed to go to a consulate and obtain a visa. This is complicated by parts of the territory that are “crosshatched”, or located in both cities, but through which you have to navigate residents of the other cities (“foreigners” to you) without interacting, or even noticing them.

Make sense? No? Stop there, go get the book, because it does get weirder.

Borders

The borders are policed by a seemingly omnipotent force which is above the law called Breach. If you, even inadvertently, step over in to the other city, or speak to a “foreigner”, they will immediately arrest you. You might not ever come back once they do.

When our detective finds out that the murder may have been committed in Ul Quoma, the foreign city, he needs to cross over to uncover what happened to her, and in the process discovers that something more sinister is happening.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this book, but always feared it would step too far away from the crime genre to be accessible. However, it doesn’t do that. Even though the plot takes some pretty intense turns that leave you reeling, its still a crime thriller through and through.

A great book, highly recommended. I purchased Melville’s Embassytown on the strength of this short, engaging novel.

“Design isn't just how it looks. Design is what it does.” —Steve Jobs