Friday, October 8, 2010

The City & The City

Well, I finally finished China Mieville's "The City & The City" last night. I tore through the last hundred pages in just over a day, as I usually do. Now, I'll preface this by saying I'm a lousy reviewer, so what follows will be very brief, probably clumsy and un-reviewy (the first mark of a bad reviewer is made up words!)

Okay, where do I start with this? The spoiler everyone interested in Mieville or this particular book has already heard is that the two cities in which this story occur--Beszel and Ul Qoma--are located in the same geographic location, so I'm not really giving anything away there. Mieville himself has said so in interviews, albeit somewhat begrudgingly, and lamented spending five chapters building to it when basically every reviewer on the planet give it away in the first line.

So, yeah, two cities in the same place. Of course, your house is in one or the other, and there are various places throughout that are totally in one or the other, but most of the topography is "crosshatched," or shared by both. A building may have a floor in Beszel, and another in Ul Qoma. In some instances, two rooms on the same floor may be separated by three feet, and an entire country.

These are unique and unusual borders, and arguably arbitrary, but they are some of the most fiercely guarded in the world, thanks to the shadowy overlord-ish group known as Breach, who seem to appear out of nowhere when a citizen--or a tourist--crosses that invisible line (which, honest to god, can be as simple as standing still; some crosshatched areas are fine to walk through, but standing still puts you in Breach).

This book is a murder mystery at heart, a detective novel in the vein of Chandler. A young American student living in Ul Qoma winds up dead by a skate park in Beszel, and Inspector Borlu is on the case.

Anyone used to reading the baroque, lavish style of Mieville's Bas-Lag novels (like me) will most likely need a  minute to get used to his voice in this book. I won't say it's stripped down, because that would imply that the prose is somehow worse, or lesser than in the other books, but that isn't the case at all. The prose is extremely effective, and China still sends me running for my dictionary every now and again, but the writing here is more straightforward, more focused, than in his other books.

Borlu, for 99.999% of the book, is supposed to be speaking either Illitan or Besz, which are both (imaginary) European languages, and the prose reads almost as if it is was meant to be translated from them to English, and along with it comes all of the bumps and clumsy phrases that don't quite sound right in English as they do when spoken in the original tongue.

Anyway (great segue!), this book is great. It's a great detective novel written by the best fantasy writer alive today, and that makes for a really cool read. For me, part of the appeal of The Dark Tower series was that it was a fantasy written by a horror writer, and as such, it read that way: King's skill for keeping you off-balance and creeped out lent itself brilliantly to a story about a gunslinging hero fighting his way to the apex of existence; "The City & The City" is the same way, with Mieville's fantasy sensibilities (ancient, mysterious artifacts with "strange physics, and a third, hidden city existing between the other two) making a crime novel something more.

In a way, it's like if you could take your favorite sports star and bring him into another sport, and he was actually just as great at that one as he was the first one. Imagine if Michael Jordan hit .300 for the White Sox, instead of flunking out of their farm team? That's sort of what's happened here.

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