Jun 16, 2009

YetiReview: The City and The City

20 words or less: Engrossing murder mystery combining masterful worldbuilding with one heck of an idea piece with a very fulfilling ending.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Pros: Imaginative worldbuilding that had me thinking about the book even when I wasn’t reading it, very strong ending that flowed naturally from the set-up.
Cons: Character depth/backstory a little lacking, occasional infodumping

The Review: China Mieville has written some weirdly wonderful stories. His latest offering, The City & The City, is no exeception. In his first few works, Mieville established a reputation for creating astounding cities almost beyond description emphasis on the word “almost.” Mieville has now taken his talent for urban worldbuilding and raised the bar, weaving a murder mystery in, over, and through the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. Without getting into the particulars (which is half the fun of the story), it is clear the two cities are closely intertwined in ways that are not fully understood by even the denizens of the two cities themselves.

When Detective Tyador Borlu discovers the lifeless body of a young woman in Beszel, he refuses to let it go. His quest for answers eventually leads him across borders and boundaries he never planned to cross: some physical and some something else entirely. Soon it is not one but two mysteries that drive this story forward; why was this young woman murdered and what does her murder suggest about The Cities?

While less overtly fantastical than some of his other novels, The City and The City captured my imagination pretty much from the get go. It started off a little heavy as Mieville tries to relate the rules of the world he’s writing in quickly and succinctly, at times resorting to the dreaded info-dump. However, as soon as I finally felt like I understood the rules of the story, Mieville started breaking them. Just trying to wrap my mind around the potential solutions became increasingly difficult as the twin mysteries began to intertwine. As the clues surfaced, I began to doubt everything I thought I knew about these strange exotic cities. The twists kept coming until the very end and I was impressed with Mieville’s ability to make me fluctuate between potential answers without ever feeling manipulated. Some mysteries lay it on too thick and characters act in irrational ways, solely for the sake of throwing the reader off the trail. In interviews, Mieville describes his feelings toward the whodunnit genre and what he believes is its intrinsic flaw: that the questions are always more interesting than the answers the author provides. If this is true, then he has managed to combine his attempt at noir with his penchant for the fantastic into something that rises above perceived genre trappings.

While strong, the mysterious plot and the imaginative world Mieville has concocted often dominate the story to the point where the characters seem less important than the settings and situations they find themselves in. While I am glad he didn’t resort to such tropes as the alcoholic divorced cop who only lives for the thrill of the case, the characters didn’t have much back story of their own. This seemed strange and off putting at first, the more I considered the missing characterization the more I was glad Mieville didn’t try and force a specific vision of Borlu or any of the other characters on us. By visualizing my own character concepts, I really got into the story itself and imagined myself walking side by side with Borlu down the city streets. Without realizing it, I had gotten lost in The City and The City and I was glad I did.

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