Friday, 1 October 2010

The City & The City

China Miéville wasn't a writer I was particularly aware of until recently. Then I got a recommendation, which declared him the greatest thing since sliced bread. The City & The City is the first book of his I've read, and if that's typical of his works then the recommendation is bang on the money.

Let me start by saying not much I've read this year has left me feeling wowed. It may be that this is the first novel to have me reeling in thought, absolutely stunned by the way it's left me in that state. The City & The City is subtle and intelligent, multi-faceted, encompassing more than the typical SF detective novel.

Set in a fictional city on the edge of Europe with Balkan overtones, the novel focuses on Inspector Borlú, of the Extreme Crimes Squad in Besźel, as he investigates a murder. As is typical in SF detective novels, there's more to this than 'ooh, look, a trollop who's gone and got stabbed by her lover's jealous missus oh dear'. What we get here is a curious concept of two cities encompassing the same topographical location. The politics of these two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, as well as the way the two cities coexist, make up the bulk of the novel's intelligent commentary on what we see and don't see in our own society, as well as the alienation in the same.

The concept is original enough, but its execution is superb. What I just told you does not do it justice. That I told you it says it all; Miéville weaves exposition of the world into the plot with such subtlety that no single passage at any stage can be said to be explaining the world. The concept permeates your mind rather than being forced upon it by heavy-handed infodumps. I can imagine that each reader will see their own version of the city and the city, rather than everyone being straightjacketed into one distinct vision. This makes the underlying alienation all the more stark.

At the heart of the story is a relentless pace that grips the reader and leaves them breathless. It has all the ingredients of the whodunnit in the Morse sense (although Morse tended not to have investigations into more than just the case); the culprit's eventual identity doesn't come as a surprise so much, as the point of the novel isn't the murder itself but the surrounding circumstances, but it still holds the attention. For a casual reader of mysteries, uninterested in the philosophies underlying the plot, the case would hold water. But it really is those surrounding circumstances that make the book what it is: brilliantly intelligent, and almost insidiously subtle.

Will I be reading more of China Miéville's work? Undoubtedly, yes. This is a novel that had me captivated in its themes and world more than any other since Look To Windward. I'm hard pushed to find a genuine weakness in Miéville's work, and I can't imagine it'll be too long before I pick up a copy of one of his other works.

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