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The City & The City: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle) Paperback – April 27, 2010
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, THE SEATTLE TIMES, AND PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. To investigate, Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to its equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the vibrant city of Ul Qoma. But this is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a seeing of the unseen. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them more than their lives. What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.
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The novel takes place in two cities in different countries which occupy the same physical space. You wouldn't have thought that possible but the author makes the world so logically consistent that you come to believe it. While the setting is inventive, imaginative, and engrossing, the author does not make the mistake of thinking it is the story. The story is also engrossing and consistent, and dependent on, its weird local. The characters, except the main one, might stand a little fleshing out, but that does not detract from the story. In fact, with so much else to think about, maybe their lack of depth is a bit of a relief.
At the end, I really could not put this down. Strong recommendation.
To start, this book is BONKERS. But in the best way possible. Admittedly, I found the beginning to be tough to get through simply because Mieville's writing is something I wasn't used to reading; at times it feels very sporadic and seems to "jump around" a lot without much exposition, but after a while I realized that I actually enjoy it that way, things seem more "fast-paced" which fits well with the story itself. It gets really interesting once he starts to describe "Breach" and the way the characters "unsee" the neighboring city. [MILD SPOILER] these details don't get "explained" until some chapters into the book, but I felt that this helped set the tone earlier on by making the character's actions that more intriguing; I kept reading because I wanted to better understand their strange behaviors and "see" the picture that Mieville was creating.
I love the concept (I haven't seen or read other stories like it), and the characters are believable and entertaining. If anyone has other suggestions for books like this please let me know, but in the meantime I would recommend this to anyone interested in more speculative fiction.
Miéville's cities of Beszél (which incidentally means 'to speak' in Hungarian) and UI Quoma are fantastically created. They are reminiscent of East and West Berlin, but instead of a high concrete walls and guard towers, the walls between Miéville's two city-countries are seemingly purely psychological, built on a deep and pervasive fear of 'Breach'. Citizens of both cities learn to 'unsee', 'unsmell', and 'unhear' everything about the other city: it's traffic, people, buildings, and more.
The idea of two countries being in the same place but separated in the minds of their citizens is a barrier for the reader's suspension of disbelief, but it's a problem that is skillfully attacked by Miéville. He describes a number of challenges the two cities need to deal with such as 'foreign' traffic and emergency vehicles, traffic accidents involving 'foreign' vehicles, children who are inexperienced at 'unseeing', tourists, immigration, trade, and differing economic status of the two countries. His description of UI Qomatown in Beszél is a good example of how much thought he has put into this world:
"The scents of Beszél UI Qomatown are a confusion. The instinct is to unsmell them, to think of them as drift across the boundaries as disrespectful as rain ("Rain and woodsmoke live in both cities," the proverb has it.)...Very occasionally a young UI Qoman who does not know the area of their city that UI Qomatown crosshatches will blunder up to ask directions of an ethnically UI Qoman Beszél-dweller, thinking them his or her compatriots. The mistake is quickly detected - there is nothing like being ostentatiously unseen to alarm - and Breach are normally merciful."
To explore the interactions between the two co-located countries, Miéville uses a murder investigation that necessitates international cooperation between Beszél's Inspector Tyador Borlú and UI Qoma's Senior Detective Quissim Dhatt. We only really get to know the main protagonist Borlú, other characters remain quite undeveloped, and the dialogue is fairly sparse and intense.
As noir crime fiction I felt it was fairly weak, and the very neat resolution to the whodunnit has prompted criticism from some readers, but they miss the point. The crime and its investigation was really an excuse to have some, otherwise very rare, international collaboration between the two cities. I was interested in the murder but I was fascinated by the larger questions it inspired: Who/what/where is 'Breach'? Was 'The Cleavage', when the two cities were created, a joining or a splitting (cleave can imply either)? Is the mental barrier between the cities purely psychological, or is there an element of magic/fantasy/sci-fi i.e. is there a biological or technological reason why the citizens of the cities can 'unsee' their foreign counterparts? Is Orciny real, a synonym for Breach, or something else entirely?
Of these questions we only really get some resolution about Breach and Orciny. Breach is invisible, pervasive, extremely secretive and seems to possess limitless power when there is a 'breach': a failure to observe the city boundaries, which could be as simple as looking directly at a building in the other country.
"I had seen Breach before, in a brief moment. Who hadn't? I had seen it take control. The great majority of breaches are acute and immediate. Breach intervenes...Trust to Breach, we grow up hearing, unsee and don't mention the UI Qoman pickpockets or muggers at work even if you notice, which you shouldn't, from where you stand in Beszél, because breach is a worse transgression than theirs."
After all of his experiences of travelling to UI Qoma and entering Breach I expected Borlú to question whether keeping the split between the cities was actually a good idea, whether Breach was morally in the right or just a brutal enforcement of a ridiculous and pointless segregation, or even just to voice some self doubt about becoming part of that enforcement. But he never does. I'm still not sure how I feel about that: to some extent it seems in keeping with his character, he shows no sympathy for the unificationists, and perhaps there is even some fantasy/sci-fi explanation (government brain modifications?) for this deficiency, but it is at odds with his willingness to break the rules to protect Yolanda Rodriguez.
Nonetheless, an intriguing concept well executed.
Read more of my reviews at g-readinglist.blogspot.com
The book's all about building a believable alternate world, and this it does brilliantly.
Apologies if I'm gushing (sure, all the cool kids already knew China Mieville was great...) so in the interests of finding some false balance, let me find a few faults. Tough, but if it were me, I'd have pushed the inspector's relationship with his female constable to see where that might go, and I'da thrown in a bit more humour, but hey, I'm just looking for nits to pick. This is great stuff. Loved it.