‘The City & The City’ by China Mievelle is set in an invented place somewhere, I think, in Eastern Europe. Because the city is the star of the novel, I’ll go into its worldbuilding in a bit of detail. There’s a city divided into two distinct areas, Beszel and Ul Qoma. But rather than this division taking place through half of the city, like East and West Berlin, the division of this city is scattered all over the place. A bit of park might belong to Beszel here, a building over there might be in Ul Qoma over there. ‘Crosshatched’ streets are where the two cities overlap, although they might have different names. The two cities have different languages with the same root, and citizens are trained from a young age not to ‘see’ the inhabitants of the other city, essentially pretending not to see the other people or buildings. Culture is defined by different ways of dress. To acknowledge the other city, even though it might be right there, or to cross over is to be ‘in breach’, which is enforced by the mysterious Breach organisation.
The plot of the book is a detective story in three parts, each taking you through a different aspect of Mievelle’s city. It’s narrated in the first person by Inspect Tyador Borlu, who goes through each part of the novel in a different phase of the detective genre. The first part, ‘Beszel’ is a slowly grinding police procedural through a decaying, capitalistic sprawl, tapping into a post-Soviet vibe, as Borlu tries to solve the murder of a mysterious woman after her abandoned body was found.
The second part is more a political thriller, looping into conspiracies. This is set in Ul Qoma, a militaristic communistic state that’s doing rather well financially, possibly due to Ul Qoma’s deposits of mysterious, Atlantean-style™ artefacts that have implications for modern research. I found this part quite gripping and enjoyed the tense build up to the end.
The third part explores the ‘Breach’, which is unfortunately where the novel fell down for me. In this section, Borlu suddenly becomes a Holmesian ‘super detective’ – he sees a clue, runs off, and is able to construct events in his head (keeping the reader at a distance) and is able to confront the villain and narrate the plot at them. This didn’t work for me, especially in light of the careful, meticulous investigations that preceded this section. The solution to the mystery/conspiracy seems far too complicated for its own good. Then, there’s a final part, which wraps up Mievelle’s whirl-wind tour through different crime genres – police procedural/political conspiracy/Holmesian ‘super detectivism’ and finally, the old thriller with the ‘just one more twist’ ending. However, it doesn’t feel like Mievelle is saying anything new with this structure; rather it’s just a reliable framework to peg his worldbuilding onto.
The City & the City works best when the camera is pointed to the grimy reality of living in within Beszel/Ul Qoma, including the practicalities of conducting a police investigation there. However, when you pan out, the city doesn’t quite work: the continued division between Beszel/Ul Qoma doesn’t seem to be able to sustain itself for as long as it has when you poke at it from afar. It feels too gritty to be metaphorical, and it’s almost weird for the sake of weirdness. The implied supernatural aspects to the city that appeared earlier in the novel peter out, leaving the reader in a state of odd, genre confusion. Or really, confusion about how this place is supposted to work out after all, unless it’s chugging along on authorial fiat.
But for atmosphere and an intense middle sequence, this is an excellent read.