Review: China Miéville crosses over to a parallel world in The City and the City

When the Firesign Theatre asked, "How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all?" they probably weren't expecting an answer. But New Weird luminary China Miéville provides one in his unorthodox fantasy novel The City and the City.

This tale of two cities isn't about great world capitals hundreds of miles apart. True, Miéville's fictional Eastern European cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, are in separate countries, but they're twin cities. Yet they're not next-door neighbors, a la Minneapolis/St. Paul. The city-states of mittel-European Beszel and Mideast-inflected Ul Qoma occupy the same patch of land.

This accident of geography has peculiar effects. One side of a street may be in Beszel, the other in Ul Qoma. Inhabitants of one city-state must "unsee" any person, automobile, etc., that is part of the other city-state. "Unseeing" is like not noticing the homeless person right in front of you. In Beszel and Ul Qoma, unseeing is the law. If you "breach"—acknowledge someone or something in the other city—then the mysterious government agency known as "Breach" disappears you. And where you go, no one knows.

Inspector Tyador Borlú of Beszel's Extreme Crime Squad isn't worried about breaching when he starts investigating the murder of an American grad student who was killed in Ul Qoma and whose body was dumped in Beszel. Connected to political radicals, Mahalia Geary held a divisive belief: that there is a third city, Orciny, located in the interstices between Beszel and Ul Qoma, which secretly controls Beszel and Ul Qoma and doesn't want to be found. As Borlú crosses over to Ul Qoma, he realizes he must find Orciny, even if the effort will get him killed or worse—and even if Orciny doesn't exist.

The City and the City blends numerous influences: the police procedural, the Ruritanian or Orsinian imaginary-country fantasy, the paranoid Cold War novel, Jorge Luis Borges, hard-boiled detective fiction, 1984, Neil Gaiman, Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick and the conspiracy thriller. It takes enormous talent, intelligence and chutzpah to pull off a genre-bender this ambitious. But Miéville succeeds, creating a novel that is distinctly his own, even as it avoids much overt resemblance to his previous fiction.

This isn't to say The City and the City is perfect. The first and second acts move too slowly, while the concluding act is too rushed and, in terms of Borlú's fate, not exactly a surprise. Also, the novel adheres too closely to the tired mystery/suspense convention in which the few female characters are victims or helpmeets. And if you require magic in your fantasy, well, this ain't your cup of tea.

But The City and the City is one of the best fantasy novels of 2009.

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