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China Miéville
The City & The City
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Pan Macmillan
UK Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-4050-0017-8
Publication Date: 05-15-2009
312 Pages; £17.99
US Hardcover First Edition
Del Rey / Random House
ISBN 978-0-345-49751-2
Publication Date: 05-26-2009

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction  Fantasy

China Miéville's 'The City & The City' is a book that will, for many readers, provide an unparalleled and unique reading experience. And those readers will come from rather disparate directions. Some will be readers of hard-core, real-world, hard-boiled mysteries. Some will be readers who spend most of their time reading the "New Space Opera" and books that might call themselves "New Weird" or "New Wave Fabulists." Some will be those who read — and re-read — their Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges until the pages are worn thin. And no matter what your expectations are based on these descriptions, you should prepare to be surprised — or perhaps, disappointed.

'The City & The City' begins as an Eastern-European murder mystery. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad for the city of Beszel is called to the scene of a crime; a woman's body is found in the courtyard of a run-down estate. Borlú is aided by Lizybet Corwi, and it looks like this case is going to involve the goings-on in Ul Qoma, Beszel's sister city. Miéville quickly establishes two levels of mystery; one is the who-done-it involving the "Furlana Detail," as they call "Jane Does" in Beszel. The other involves Beszel and Ul Qoma, because of course, few readers will have traveled to these cities and thus, since the relationship between them is part of the murder mystery, that will need some unraveling as well.

As mysteries go, Miéville proves to be every bit the craftsman in this genre as he has in the fantasy genre, which means that he's incredibly inventive. That said, he provides a reading experience that will require an open mind no matter what genre you read, be it mystery, fantasy or literary experimentation. If you're willing to have the rules tweaked and then scrupulously observed, 'The City & The City' is going to be one of the best books you'll read this year. Miéville's novel is much more than a standard-issue mystery, even though it operates within the rules of a police procedural.

Those familiar with Miéville's past work should prepare for a surprise. The prose here is clean and stripped down; there are no monsters and no baroque descriptions of complicated rotting cityscapes. The style is that of a classic mystery, though the subject is slightly to the left and right of any mystery you've ever read. That said, the writing is powerful and emotionally resonant. In much the same way that every classic mystery writer has crafted a locale from the ground up in prose — be it Los Angeles, London, Moscow or San Francisco — Miéville crafts the world of Tyador Borlú in 'The City & the City.' You'll know the mean streets of Beszel and Ul Qoma, the hard glares of the surly citizens and the city stink of traffic and despair.

Tyador Borlú is a low-key observer as he navigates the fascinatingly complex social and political milieu of Beszel and Ul Qoma. Expect all the powers and principalities of modern Europe to make an appearance, and as well, expect that Borlú will be pretty much underwhelmed by everything he sees. He's got a great, dry sense of humor that leavens the grim reality of the early 21st century. Corwi is a wonderful presence, enthusiastic and efficient, but not overly so. Those who surround them are clearly all guilty of something, but probably not the murder at hand. You'll like them even as you understand and sympathize with Borlú's mistrust.

With 'The City & The City' Miéville sets out to do something different from anything he himself has done and everyone else as well, while at the same time playing a fair game within the well-established rules of a deliberately limited genre. Without question, he is spectacularly successful at creating not one, but two mysteries and solving them to the satisfaction of a wide variety of readers. The bigger mystery is that of the bookselling marketplace, which wants to place every book in a locked room. 'The City & The City' will not easily be slotted into any jail that booksellers, or reviewers, may care to consign it to. It displays enough craft and inspiration to evade capture. All boundaries are permeable.

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