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Book Review: The City and The City by China Mieville (3/5). Once you figure out the setting, your head will stop spinning.

9 May

I never would have picked this book up if it weren’t for my book club. I don’t know how much I enjoyed it and would recommend it, but I didn’t hate it. It was different, maybe too different for my tastes. But still ‘good.’ Read on!

Cover image via

Cover image via

The City and The City by China Mieville

Inspector Borlu is investigating the murder of Mahalia, a student in neighboring Ul Qoma. The country’s border isn’t as far away as you’d think, maybe only a few feet. That’s because Ul Qoma and Borlu’s city, Beszel, share the same geographic space. Are you confused yet? The two cities belong to different countries, but occupy the same space. Citizens have to ‘unsee’ and ‘unhear’ things happening in the other country. Locals know the boarders and are careful never to breach the border. Borlu suspects that whoever killed Mahalia did so in Ul Qoma and dumped her body in Beszel. An international investigation begins and delves into Mahalia’s research. She’s been investigation Orciny, a suspected third city that exists in all the disputed territory of the other cities. If it’s really there, what is it controlling?

[Spoilers Summary]
Borlu finds out that the murder crossed legally between the two countries and he’s unable to invoke Breach: the inter-city policing force that makes sure citizens stay within their own country. Why? She was legally transported between the two cities, crossing the border that exists beneath the joint city hall. Borlu goes to Ul Qoma to work with Officer Dhatt of their police force. Together they find out that Orciny is involved and must figure out how far. Mahalia’s best friend has gone missing, too, and she fears Orciny is after her life.

I overheard one of the librarians telling a member of our group that the two cities had the same physical space. When I started reading, I thought it might be that they were on different planes of existence that could almost see each other without being able to clearly see but the more I got into it, the more I understood. I liked that the setting was meant to be a place in the known world. There were references to Turkey, Hungary, Israel, and other countries that appear on the map in your third grade classroom but Ul Qoma and Beszel are completely fictional.

It’s hard to say if the characters were well-written. They live in a world so different from my own that I can’t relate to them on any sort of cultural level. On a human level (I assume they are humanoid), I liked Mieville’s characters. They experienced fear and anger in much the same way I do. I think that’s important in Science Fiction because with such a disconnected setting, we need to be able to appeal to the human emotion of the characters.

China Mieville (Image from The Guardian)

Borlu was an awesome character. I loved his small acts of rebellion against the Breach and how he would sometimes ‘see’ what he should have been ‘unseeing.’ I liked that he questioned what he saw in a world where I felt no one else was. They seemed to think the situation was normal despite living in a world where it was anything but.

It was hard to understand how the characters thought. They had been so brainwashed by their government that they could no longer see for themselves. it was hard for me to understand this for a long time and even once I did, I was still lost. I think Mahalia’s parents are the one ones I could relate to because they seemed as lost in these strange countries as I felt.

I was on the edge of my seat when Borlu committed Breach. I’d been waiting for it the entire book and almost jumped off the couch when it happened. I was so glad that he saw the idiocy of what was happening and took action when those around him were unwilling to react. The idea of Breach was so foreign for the first part of the book and I was fascinated by it. I devoured the end of this book because I was so excited to hear about the people and places that could exist between these strange cities. The description of the Breach headquarters fascinated me. How could the people of Beszel and Ul Qoma both unsee such a large building? So mind blown.

The beginning of the book frustrated me. I was so confused as to what was happening that I wanted to throw the book. The murder scene was enough to keep me interested in the book despite this, but I wish Mieville could have used a news release or text-book entry as a prologue to explain the geographic problems of the city. I would have pulled out much less hair.

I think this book was about conformity and the greater good. The people conformed to a society with such ridiculous laws that our society can’t imagine them. Think of looking out your window, waving at your neighbor, and being arrested for crossing an international border. I’m glad Borlu stood up to this system and called it out for the tedious thing that it was. Borlu sacrificed a lot for the greater good of both countries by breaking laws and taking directions he probably should have let lie. I liked that he was a selfless character and that he overcame the adversity he faced to help the people of both cities. He was a very positive character and I’m not lying about how much I liked him.

Writer’s Takeaway: To anyone who ever told me to read outside of my comfort zone, thank you. I have to recognize the genius of Mieville in creating such a wonderful and well crafted story. I think I learned about establishing setting and how that can be important. When I read a book, I always try to figure out where it’s located on a map; find a place to point my finger. With this, I couldn’t and it frustrated me initially. My frustration was compounded by the situation. As I said before, I wish there had been a prologue or other device to warn the reader of the complicated setting. I would have been more intrigued from the beginning.

To average between my initial disappointment and ending raves, I’m setting for 3/5 stars on this one.

I’m not sure this counts, but I’m using the Ukraine as my location for this book on my Where Are You Reading? Challenge. From clues in the book, this seems a likely location for the cities.

Until next time, write on.

Related Posts:
Review of China Mieville’s “The City and the City” | disillusioned marxist
Book Review: The City and the City (China Mieville) | Keep Watching the Words
[Column] The Backlog: The City and the City by China Mieville | Orange Monkey Publishing
China Mieville’s The City and the City | Plume of Words
Review: ‘The City & The City’ by China Mieville | LAURIE JANEY

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