The City and the City – China Miéville

Like The Radleys, another book pretending to be something else. And trying harder. And succeeding better. But under the pretence at being a crime novel, I’m not really sure what this actually /is/. So far as I can tell, it’s not really fantasy. And it’s not really science fiction. It’s just… odd.

A lot of people have recommended China Miéville to me. This is the second book of his I’ve read, and the first I’ve finished (Un Lun Dun was a kids’ book, and not, I felt at the time, a very good one at that) and I’m not sure it has encouraged me to read more. I am struggling very hard to see why so many people thought he was worth sharing.

On the face of it, I can’t find anything really to complain about. There’s nothing, strictly speaking, wrong with the book. I spent the first fifty pages quite confused, but that was in a good way. The whole things starts as a detective mystery style of book, but since it was in the fantasy section, I kept expecting it to turn into fantasy after a while. I mean, it was obviously only pretending to be a detective novel, while it was busy luring you into what it really was underneath. And it hints, it hints so much and seems and suggests that what it is is something more than mundane. But when it comes down to it, at the end of the book (ok, this is probably spoilers, read not further if you care) all that hinting and suggesting and are nothing more than a red herring, and it’s a detective novel, all the way to the end.

True, it’s not an entirely run of the mill detective novel (I think… I don’t really read crime fiction after Holmes, so I can’t say for sure) but the weirdness around the edges never really resolves into solid fantasy. It is a cool setting, undeniably so. Miéville had an excellent idea when he made up Ul Qoma and Besźel. I just wish he’d… I don’t know… maybe let it be as weird and potentially magical as the book keeps letting you hope it is.

My own disappointment out of the way, the book is good. I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea good, but it has obvious, visible merits. The plot goes at a nice, amazingly well-balanced pace. There are no points, even when they are doing police-y drudge, where I feel like the story’s dragging. And it’s a well-thought out, well-executed plot. As I said, I was confused for the first fifty pages, and that doesn’t entirely get dispelled until very near the end of the novel. There’s no real question of predictability of the plot. It takes long enough to get to grips with the setting and all the players (and the pseudo-Balticky-Hungariany-Arabicky names and place-names) that you don’t really have a chance of predicting anything until you already know for sure. And, as I said before, the setting is brilliant. Not just the idea, which is pretty damn cool, but the execution. He drops in little bits here and there of backstory, without going into full-on exposition mode too much, to make it seem really real.

Character-wise, it’s a bit more tricky. You don’t get anything like the depth I would really like, but I think it’s just part and parcel of the author’s style. It wouldn’t fit in with the way he writes background and plot to have really explored the point of view character. And I don’t think the character could have withstood it. Borlú works as a detective, and works as a man without much going on under the surface, but I don’t think he could have carried complex motivations, or even really emotions other than “determined”, “confused” and “swearing”. He does the last one a lot. In any other book, I suppose he’d feel shallow and pointless, but he works against the richness and madness of the setting; they complement each other. You almost don’t need another set of complicated to try to work out, when the whole background is plenty mad enough. Also, the main character is from Besźel, which comes across pretty quickly as dead and grey and washed out, without any real depth to it, and so he is kind of of-his-city. Think caricature of Eastern European city, in the not-good way, and you’re probably about there. But I like characters. I like people I can completely love, and care what happens to, and really really want to read more about, and they just aren’t there. You get vague hints at motivations, but no real glimpse of what’s going on underneath, and it’s quite disconcerting, really.

Basically, I have quite mixed feelings on the book. On the one hand, I feel like it could have been so much, and it did promise so much, but it didn’t ever give it up, and actually was leading you on all along. But on the other hand, the whole point is that deception, and it is carried off very well, in a wonderful setting that is really worth reading about.

I won’t read the book again, I should imagine. I am not encouraged to read any more of his books. But nor can I bring myself to say that the book is bad, or not worth reading. I’ll settle for “it’s not really my thing” and leave it at that. For the right person, I think it would be a good read, even a great one. But I don’t think I know the right person, maybe I’m wrong, so I shan’t be recommending it either.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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4 Responses to The City and the City – China Miéville

  1. Ignatius says:

    While obviously I’m probably going against the grain to recommend more Mieville and it’s a while since you wrote this, most of his other books are definitely weird rather than just pretending to be so in order to do something clever. That said while he has more developed characters than Borlú the world is always the major focus so it may not be to your taste. Starting points I’d recommend of his actual fantasy works are Kraken, which is best described as Neverwhere filtered thorough large amounts of LSD and punk rock, featuring as a central point the pickled giant squid in the Natural History Museum, and The Scar which is one of his three books set in his Bas Lag fantasy world, which is maybe a tad more character driven than most and is mostly set on an awesome floating pirate city. Both I could lend to you if you are interested in reading more.

  2. Ooo, the City and the City. I read this … a few months ago? At some point in the past year, anyway. I really liked it (but then, I really really like detective novels). I pretty much agree with what you say – yeah, Borlu wasn’t very deep (though I think this is often true of protagonists in detective fiction, including some very good ones – I certainly wouldn’t claim to have a deep understanding of Holmes’ inner life) and puzzling out the setting was the main thing. I think that if I wasn’t such a fan of detective novels I would have felt more let down by the end where it turns out that all the mystic hints … are not really the point. And deception and self-deception are so interwoven into all of the book that it seems fitting.

    I read Embassytown at about the same time as the City and the City (the library happened to have both of them in at once), and thought it was fantastic. I think Embassytown is probably more character-driven than most of Mieveille’s work (though I haven’t read *that* much, just these two, plus Un Lun Dun and Looking for Jake which is a short story collection). It’s … kind of about how different species might relate to each other, and kind of about how travelling makes you not fit in when you go home, and kind of about other things. It also has language stuff in it that you might find interesting – the alien species’ language is tied to their thought, so e.g. if played a recording of speech they don’t recognise it as speech, because there is no brain behind it thinking the thing that is being said. (Their language is central to the plot, not just a passing aside).

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