Thursday, December 03, 2009

The City and the City - China Mieville

I realised I'd not found time to blog about the last book I read, China Mieville's noir fantasia "The City and the City." If previous Mieville novels have been set in a an imaginative elsewhere, The City and the City is much closer to home. It's rather brilliant conceit is a city that is cleaved in two, but the border between Beszel and Ul Quoma is not in a particular geographic location, but something else. The complex geography of the two cities is, like Mieville's previous creations, one of his triumphs, a highly believable mean streets. By taking the conceit of the "divided city" and riding with it, he creates a remarkable sense of place and displacement. Of course, the two cities are brought together when a crime takes place, and the Beszel detective Tyador Borlu begins to investigate. The city is set in an Eastern Europe, in a recognisable world, though these strange cities are almost cut-off from the rest of the world. There is something in antiquity which led to this strange city, and it is policed at the margins by "breach", a shadowy police force that will punish quickly and unequivocally anyone who breaches either city's borders. As a metaphor for a fractured state its remarkable. Tyador is a recognisable archetype, the cop who ignores the advice of his superiors because he gets obsessed with the case. Yet it is the nature of that case which in the end weakens what is in other ways an excellent read. The murder investigation is a little hackneyed, the "mystery", as it unravels, nowhere near as interesting as the strange world in which it happens. At the start you think that the book is going to be darker, with the political forces of the two cities at the centre of it, but Mieville shies away a little from this, and in the end its primarily an otherworldy police procedural. This reader very much enjoyed the conceit, there are small pleasures on each page, but there are also longeurs, and Tyador aside the other characters lack defnition. The utter strangeness that I got when reading "Perdido Street Station" or some of his short stories, is less pronounced; Beszel could almost be the Baltimore badlands of The Wire, but in taking us away from out-and-out fantasy worlds, Mieville's moving towards a more radical reimagining, closer to Ballard and Ellison than the fantasy set.

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