Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review: The City and the City by China Miéville

The City & The CityThe City & The City by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not the first reviewer to note that this is a police procedural in a science fiction/fantasy setting. For me, though, this was something to be overcome, rather than a feature. I don't generally like procedurals, and this book brought out all the excruciating detail that makes me impatient and want to read something else. Despite that handicap, though, I wound up liking it.

The cities in the title are Beszel (pronounced in the audio "bay-ZHEL") and Ul Qoma (pronounced in the audio as "el-coma). They exist on top of one another, and the residents are taught from an early age to ignore the evidence of the other city's existence. It's generally easy to do, but there are places, which the text calls "cross-hatches," where the borders are thin. Only one such border is a legal checkpoint where people may pass without violating the deepest law of the land, that of Breach.

Our narrator is Inspector Tyador Borlu, a resident of Beszel who gets the puzzling case of a woman who doesn't seem to exist. A random tip from Ul Qoma points him in the right direction, but to acknowledge where the tip came from is to risk Breach. He finds a way around it, and argues her killer had to have breached, but new evidence refuting this surfaces, and he has to cross the border to continue his investigation.

The book consists of three sections, each taking part in a different version of the city. Borlu has a different partner in each section, too, and is increasingly humbled with each reassignment. His goal never shifts, though; he only becomes more and more determined to find the killer with each obstacle plopped in his path.

There's some infodumping in the text, as Borlu narrates as if he's writing a tourism guide, sometimes. The most interesting parts, I thought, were in the small tidbits he drops, rather than the droning paragraphs. He mentions, offhand, that Ul Qoma has the better technology, and that it also has worse poverty and a smaller population. It also has a trade embargo with the US, which adds a layer of politics on top of everything else.

I thought the dual cities could stand for a number of things: the Berlin wall, the ownership of Hong Kong by the British, the selective ignoring citizens of a city do with the less savory elements, or the very different lives people can lead in a city without ever crossing paths with other residents. It could also be said to symbolize the racial divide.

My biggest complaint about the book was that I was never convinced that breach was that great a crime. People are terrified of committing it, and, though Breach is mysterious and frightening, the consequences aren't that great. I couldn't figure out why it was so important that the cities not bleed into one another. That could be a theme of the book, about how we uphold values unquestioningly, and I never heard a strong case that it wasn't, so it's a weak complaint.

I listened to this book on audio. It was nice to know how to pronounce things, but the narrator had some flat inflection. I don't know if the infodumps were as boring as I thought they were, but a lot of the sections sounded like a professor droning on about things I didn't care about. The narrator was capable of inflecting, and had an intriguing English accent, so it was disappointing that I almost didn't listen past the first disc because his delivery was so off-putting. I'm glad I stuck it out, though.

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