Review: The City and the City by China Mieville

This novel came to me via a recommendation, and the recommendee, eyes glowing, exclaimed that I HAD to read it because, I quote, the novel is “Brilliant!” So, being the good friend, I dutifully went to the nearest bookstore, bought myself a copy, and began reading in earnest. And, I have to admit, on the whole, my friend’s review of “Brilliant!” was absolutely correct!

The premise: Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in the European city-state of Besźel, investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, a foreign student found dead with her face disfigured in a Besźel street. He soon learns that Geary had been involved in the political and cultural turmoil involving Besźel and its twin city of Ul Qoma. His investigations start in his home city of Besźel, lead him to Ul Qoma to assist the Ul Qoman police in their work, and eventually results in an examination of the legend of Orciny, a rumoured third city existing in the spaces between Besźel and Ul Qoma.

The City& The City takes place in the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens (and the threat of the secret power known as Breach), they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully ‘unsee’ (that is, consciously erase from their mind or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city — even if they are an inch away. This separation is emphasized by the style of clothing, architecture, gait, and the way denizens of each city generally carry themselves. Residents of the cities are taught from childhood to recognize things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is called “breaching” – a terrible crime by the citizens of the two cities, even worse than murder. (Wikipedia –

In the end, while I enjoyed the detective story aspect of the novel quite a lot, what really grabbed me was the ‘unseeing’ that had to be done by the citizens of each city. This act reminded me of how we ‘unsee’ objects, events, people or anything that does not sit quite well with us on a daily basis; the world of Beszel and Ul Qoma are really no different to the physical partitions we build separating the poor from the rich, neighbours from neighbours, or countries from countries. Mieville has the incredible ability of taking ‘normal’ behaviours, turning them upside, twisting them around, and holding them up to us as a wholly unique world, allowing us to peel away the layers of meaning that he wants us to find, and we, each, find for ourselves.

Highly recommend this one 🙂



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