To talk about The City & The City is to mention its central premise, which to some is consider a form of spoiler. If so, then look away, because I will be talking about it at length.
Here be minor spoilers!
Right, still with me? OK. The City & The City is the story of two physical cities that occupy the same physical space, the occupants on one city ignoring the buildings and occupants of the other through the act of unseeing. We follow Inspector Borlu of the Bezel Extreme Crime Squad as he tries to solve the murder of a young girl, a crime which seems to cross these city borders.
In essence, The City & The City is a crime novel. I know Mieville is known for his fantasy but in many ways there is no fantasy here. Well, I say that, but at the same time it is everywhere, living in the idea that two cities could exist in the same space. The wardrobe to another world has been replaced with a sociological conceit, and therein lies on of the most unique fantasy novels of recent years.
What Mieville does so deftly in this book is the act of worldbuilding. The premise of the novel is absurd, but Mieville unveils his fantasy so slowly and carefully that the reader is carried along until the concept that is Bezel and Ul Qorma seems almost unquestionable. This is not easily done, especially when it is done in such a way that it is effortless for the reader to believe. It shows a master’s hand.
In my view in the first two parts, it is a masterwork, with only one slight stumble. In one of the meetings with Khurusch, I found myself feeling that the scene had perhaps been drawn out a bit too long in order to slip in vital information regarding the two cities.
This is the first Mieville I’ve read. I’ve seen him speak and been so impressed with him that I’ve bought the vast majority of his books, but they’ve sat amongst my “To Read” pile for some time now. As a godfather to the New Weird I wasn’t sure of what to expect, but I think I expected something a little more challenging than this. But here, Mieville doesn’t want to punch you in the face with his prose. Here he wants to steal your wallet.
Come the end of the second part, I think this may be the finest novel I’ve read in years, a quite complex premise told with such skill that it feels effortless to read. But for me part three – the climax to the novel – felt comparatively rushed.
A good crime novel will offer many twists and turns, and the City & the City certainly does that, but come the end it felt the loose ends where rudely knotted rather than intricately weaved. Whereas the slow reveal of Ul Qorma had been carefully and meticulously revealed, the resolution felt hastily pulled together. Now it could be said that, it was late, I was at the end of a marathon reading session, and that the fault lie, not with the author, but with the reader. That’s a fair comment but whereas Mieville had lovingly guided his reader along for the first two parts, here I felt abandoned as if he said to me “You’re on your own now.” And maybe, given the nature of the story at this point, that was his intention.
But whereas the symmetry of Corwi and Dhatt was clever (and to be fair, brilliantly illustrated in that final part), the inclusion of a third partner just felt a step too far. Likewise, come the end of the novel, I’m still not sure about everyone’s motivations, the corporate element still making me feel like I missed something fundamental in the book. As it is, it feels like a stamp of the New Weird on the story, but if it is that, it’s a shame, not because I have any issue with the New Weird but that it feels a step too far, a heavy handed dose of fantasy where for the rest of the book it remained there as unseen as an alternative city.
My problem is that after the light-handed almost guiding touch of the first two parts, the final part feels heavy-handed. Instead of being taken by the hand and guided round, I’m bundled into the back of a car and kidnapped. And whether that was intentional or not, it ruins the story for me.
The City & The City is still a brilliant novel. There were parts where the technical construction of the novel really took my breath away, and I can see why it has cleaned up in the awards. But by comparison the last fifty pages, whilst I would have accepted them in any other ‘lesser’ novel, should have been the epitome of the quality of the book. The fact that they felt the weakest part, ruined The City & The City for me – a novel that up until that point I had thought could have been one of the best books I’d read in the last five years.