"Nothing is still like the dead are still. The wind moves their hair, as it moved hers, and they don't respond at all."
It begins with a murder. Or, more precisely, the discovery of a murder. On the scene is Extreme Case Squad Inspector Tyador Borlú. The woman who lays at his feet turns out to be the product of much more than a typical murder, but rather one of a bizarre and deadly conspiracy that threatens two cities.
The two cities in question, and referenced in the title, are Beszel and Ul Qoma, located somewhere on the edge of Europe, seemingly perfect as post-Soviet Balkan states, yet never officially designated as such. Ul Qoma is rich and prosperous, while Beszel is run down and poor. They are neighbors, grudgingly so, and its citizens have undertaken to "unsee" each other: you simply do not look upon or acknowledge the presence of the other. To do so would result in severe repercussions and painful penalties at the hands of the Breach, the supreme authority of this grim world.
So it is a remarkable and uncomfortable journey for Inspector Borlú when his investigation of this murder leads him to travel to Ul Qoma and work alongside Detective Qussim Dhatt. As they deal with their own differences and restrictions placed on their investigations by the rules of the Breach, they begin to uncover political machinations and a darker purpose. In the midst of this case exist two factions: unificationists who believe that the two cities are, in fact, one and should be rejoined, and nationalists from each city bent on destroying the other.
Breach has a firm hold on what is permitted. And when archaeologists think they have uncovered a third city, Orciny, which exists between the other two, things begin to get troublesome for everyone, especially for Borlú, who starts believing that perhaps Orciny is real, a thought that would violate Breach and make him a target for punishment.
THE CITY & THE CITY is a mysterious and provocative tour de force from China Miéville and is without question his most stunning book since 2002’s THE SCAR. With this work, Miéville deftly plays with a plot that could’ve collapsed under its own weight had someone of lesser writing talent undertaken it. And Miéville is an incredible hidden talent.
Not so much science fiction or fantasy, THE CITY & THE CITY is more mystery and psychological/sociological study, taking a look at how in our own world we tend to ignore that which does not directly affect us. Those readers turned off by such tags as "science fiction" and "fantasy" should ignore the urge to walk past this book. Miéville's work is not so neatly pigeonholed and is certainly not peopled with elves or aliens. Instead, it is engrossing and thoughtful and occasionally twisted; in the case of THE CITY & THE CITY, it is a stunning achievement worthy of attention.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on December 27, 2010