[Editor's Note: this was supposed to be a mini-review, but then it ballooned. My apologies for the rambling]
I have a viciously love-hate relationship with China Mieville (ok, that’s a lie – I have said relationship with his books, not with him personally, though the latter would be nice too). Perdido Street Station and The Scar top my list of “all time favorite books” and I can’t get enough of his amazing, subtle world building. But then on the other end of the spectrum are books like Un Lun Dun (meh) and King Rat (super-meh edging on loathing). I’m not sure where the disparity in my feelings is sourced (after all, Un Lun Dun and King Rat are extremely different books) but there it is.
Based on this background, you can imagine my surprise when I didn’t at all have a strong reaction to The City & The City. It was a good book with some interesting elements, but I didn’t love it. It had some shortcomings, but I didn’t hate it. Dammit, China, what am I supposed to think of our relationship now!?
The City & The City is set in more-or-less present day in a fictional country somewhere in eastern Europe. The story starts out reading like a detective novel, and then slowly introduces the concept that there’s something a bit odd about the setting – gradually a picture is painted that there are in fact two countries that exist on top of each other in space. The residents of each country are trained to “unsee” the elements of the sister country, and the border between the two places is enforced by a supernatural force known as Breach. The story follows Detective Tyador Borlu as he investigates a murder that takes him across country lines and gets him involved in all sorts of historical intrigue.
As always, what Mieville does best is build a world without explicitly calling attention to its weirdness. He tells the story from the point of view of someone who lives in that world – someone who takes in their surroundings, but doesn’t exclaim “Wow, Holy crap!” every time something strange happens… because to that character it’s not strange: it’s every-day. The City & The City was no exception to this excellent world-building approach, but the “real world” elements made the journey less fantastic than PSS or The Scar.
The characters were solid and real – flawed without being contrived. The story was interesting – starting small but expanding to examine some bigger issues. The ending was a bit predictable, but the plot turns throughout the story were surprising enough that I didn’t feel cheated. The whole narrative read very quickly, and left me pleased and satisfied.
So – good book. Not as good as some of my favorite Mieville work, but not as bad as some of my least favorite. Worth reading, especially if you want to give someone a gentle ramp-up to PSS and The Scar.