Novel Review: The City and the City

The always-original China Miéville has won a number of awards and been nominated several times for the Hugo. His latest Hugo nominated-novel, a Kafkaesque fantasy/SF police procedural, takes a hardboiled cop deep into his home city of Besźel, somewhere in Eastern Europe—and into Ul Qoma, which occupies approximately the same geographical space.

He also encounters the secretive forces that maintain the separation between the city and the city.

Title: The City and the City
Author: China Miéville
ISBN: 0345497511, 978-0345497512
First published: 2009., and


A murder sends Inspector Tyador Borlú investigating political extremists, possible conspiracies, and the fantastic politics of his home city and its counterpart. Besźel and Ul Qoma, The city and the city, occupy the same territory. Some physical spaces belong to one only. Some alternate, with properties side by side in different worlds. Others “crosshatch.” Residents of one ignore and “unsee” the other, and the mysterious forces of “Breach” maintain the separation. Residents who ignore the divisions—or fail to adequately ignore the other place—disappear without a trace.

Numerous fictional detectives have found themselves working with mismatched partners. Borlú must first work with his associate in Ul Quoman.

Then he must team up with Breach.

High Point:

I loved the first two Bas-Lag novels, but felt the third, Iron Council, for all its strengths, tripped over its own metaphor/symbol in the conclusion.

The City and The City presents us with a far more resilient and multifoliate metaphor in the Kafkaesque interactions between its communities. We do “unsee” quite a lot in human societies, and feel genuinely shocked when our perceptions shift and we discover things hiding in plain site. Members of separate communities walk by and avoid each other every day. The novel’s handling of laws may also give readers pause. The book’s fantasies resonate with a thousand realities, and they do so with real power.

People from one city pass through Copula Hall, pass inspection, practice shifting, and then return where they started—but as visitors to the other city. Miéville continues as a world-builder and mind-expander, and he tweaks and reinvents the language in order to communicate his ideas.

Low Points:

Miéville includes the best and the very worst of the procedural mystery. The final chapters explain several mysteries through heavier exposition than required, and I found my interest fading.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6 The premise, as I’ve already noted, is entirely original. I cannot think of anything else quite like it. Within that premise, Miéville reuses and reinvents the tropes familiar to any reader of crime fiction.

Imagery: 5/6 Whereas The Bas-Lag novels (and even the somewhat unsatisfying children’s tome, Un Lun Dun) roiled with fantastic imagery, this novel features more ideas and less description. I could imagine these cities and play with the puzzles their interactions create, but I never had the sense of a realized physical world the way I did with Bas-Lag.

Story: 5/6. The story begins well, and I felt heightened anticipation about Borlú’s passing to Ul Qoma and then Breach. The final portions of the book could use work.

Characterization: 4/6. I also had too little sense of the secondary characters. Borlú has been realized more fully, but his lack of any real connections and relationships required further investigation.

Emotional Response: 5/6.

Editing: 6/6. Mieville’s prose style remains strong, and he invents language in order to discuss the novel’s circumstances.

Overall score: 5/6

In total, The City and the City receives 35/42

Inevitable Crossover Gag

Miéville has said he wants to write something in every genre—adding fantastic twists of his own. To that end, he will be joining forces with Candace Bushnell to write Sex and the City and the City. Can Carrie and the girls get passage from Besźel to more glamorous Ul Qoma, without revealing that they’ve each illicitly seen something (new shoes, a hunky guy) across the invisible border? And what will happen when they learn the colors designated for Ul Quoman clothing aren’t fashionable this season?

Many readers will try very hard to unsee this one.