a guest post: [w/ a bit of editing]: thank you, Natalya…
Imagine a world where instead of visiting a city within a city, you visit another peculiar place: a city that is its own country. It’s a 2-week process to get your visa—2 weeks of testing and intense learning where they tell you that though there’re are 2 cities (countries) in 1 location, you may only see and walk in 1. If you fail to do so, an unknown force of whom even the police and military are frightened of will come after you. Do not Breach- they tell you.
When you enter the streets you are surrounded by people who have grown up this way- unseeing each other, unseeing the other city. Citizens live in fear of breach, striving to ignore the other. Imagine the difficulties, the implications. Imagine the things you are asked to unsee, and not only when driving on shared streets.
You go into a dead-ended corridor and when you exit it, you are in another country. International calls could be from one building to the adjacent, but the connection is bad as if the distance were the width of an ocean. To get to your neighbor you may have to walk through that dead-end tunnel, turn around and enter the other city again. Some vacation, huh? Welcome to Beszel and Ul Qoma, the City and the City.
A delightfully complex mystery I wouldn’t suggest as anyone’s light, easy read, or to read aloud, China Mieville’s The City and the City (Del Rey 2009) is a novel split into 3 parts: Beszel, Ul Qoma and Breach, is set in 2 cities, and begins with one fairly inconspicuous murder. In explaining this book there are multiple paths to explore, but perhaps I should just summarize: it is a difficult read, but a fantastic one.
L and I both wanted to read The City and the City, and we both wanted to read something aloud. It is most definitely a book to read- and I’d hazard all of Mieville’s books should be read- just not read aloud. I speak from experience. With names like Beszel and Ul Qoma, Borlu, Corwi, and Bol Ye’an, Mieville immediately aims to create the unfamiliar among the familiar amongst the unfamiliar; a move that is, in essence, fantasy. Yet Mieville makes it clear even in a Q & A at the back of the book, that City and the City is anti-fantasy. For every hint of hidden magic he counters with a classic noir tone, which throws the reality of corruption into sharp relief. So instead of the supernatural, which is easier for the reader to grasp- City and the City’s mystery is not only that of a murder, but of a whole society that has no clear exposition to explain it.
Inspector Tyador Borlu is already well-versed in the concrete reality and sometimes absurd intricacies of Besz and of Ul Qoma, but is asked to navigate, too, the conspiracy and paranoia of a childhood folktale: Orciny. With the ever-present threat of Breach, he must tread lightly.
Between the militsya of Ul Qoma and Beszel’s policzai, lies an entirely different form of law, one that is, as they explain to foreigners, “the sanctions available to Breach are pretty limitless.” The reader gets the sense of a swarm of silent ghosts, because Breach does not appear, it does not arrive, it “manifests”. The limitless amount of intrigue that pairs with the political effects, secret societies and bureaucracy of a good noir is complicated by Mieville’s third city, Orciny. Orciny is a speculation: possibilities abound as to what it could be: Breach’s enemy, the place where Breach resides, the ravings of a cult, the silent manipulators—who knows?
A murder mystery centers the novel. In investigating the peculiar murder case, Tyador guides the reader about the simultaneous cities. In an interview Mieville mentions he, “could have had fourth, fifth, sixth rumored cities, etc., at ever-decreasing scales.” I’ve always been a sucker for setting, but the cities in particular were a delightful challenge. Mieville does not shy away from a complex approach to describe the way the cities interact, and the fact the setting is inextricably linked with the plot makes understanding it important.
But for a book about cities, Mieville effortlessly brings brilliant characters into a spotlight. Of a fairly intricate cast of characters, 4 stand out in particular: Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad. Beat Cop and Grade-one Constable Corwi. Senior Detective Quissim Dhatt. The last person- well I’m afraid you’ll just have to find out for yourself. As cops, all: Corwi, Dhatt and Borlu share a similarity in roughness- they’re all wary, all sweary (one reason this is an adult novel) and – in accordance with noir- willing to go beyond the law to accomplish something. Of course, Corwi is (understandably) hesitant, Dhatt is a bit eager when it comes to violence- but Borlu, the protagonist is the epitome of sticking his nose where it shouldn’t.
City and the City rewards the reader their persistence. It is a perfect site for negotiating what might endanger us if we were notice, and the fear of what goes seen and unseen. City and the City is an unusual and entertaining mystery, you should read it, just maybe not aloud.
aka The Daughter; middle-schooler; writer & poet; a SFF fan; and avid reader: she just finished The Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami and is currently reading Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun.