Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad finds deadly conspiracies beneath a seemingly routine murder. From the decaying Beszel, he joins detective Qussim Dhatt in rich vibrant Ul Qoma, and both are enmeshed in a sordid underworld. Rabid nationalists are intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists dream of dissolving the two into one.
This one is worth reading just for the fantastically original world-building. Two cities, enveloped around each other and yet divided by more than just a wall or a border – that premise charmed me sufficiently to make me forget about a schematic, noir murder mystery and not especially well-shaped-out characters. After reading the book I am still at a loss: were Beszel and Ul Quoma in the same place but in two different dimensions? Was it the same dimension but two, slightly opposite places? Why the inhabitants were so adamant to preserve that strange status quo? I grant it, they were two separate nations speaking two different languages. They didn’t like each other much, not quite. And yet…imagine seeing, and doing your damnedest to ignore, people from other city walking your streets or streets running parallel to yours, day in day out…you can notice their buildings, their cars, their shops and cafes. You can notice their children and pets. You can even visit as a tourist and then you’ll be faced with even a greater challenge – ignoring streets and people from your own motherland, visible but completely unattainable…
Mieville gives an absolutely brilliant interpretation of segregation, cultural differences, political influence, governmental authority etc. in his creation of that unique world. If only he could populate it with equally fascinating characters…Philosophy aside, I didn’t care much about the murder victim and the perpetrator. What was even stranger, Tyador Borlu, the cool police investigator trying to solve the case, left me lukewarm as well. He was average. He was ordinary. He had two mistresses and that piece of info didn’t make me bat my eyelid because neither of the ladies was present as a character, just as a flavour. To find the killer, Borlu must go to the neighboring city of Ul Qoma and team with Qussim Dhatt of the Murder Squad. Qussim seemed to be Borlu’s alter ego, perhaps a bit harsher and crueler but roughly the same sameness cop template. If it were deliberate I would applaud it but I think it wasn’t.
The concept of the Breach was also flawed a bit. Part police force, part bogey man, the Breach enforce the status quo, keeping people from going back and forth between cities with impunity. Still I had an impression the author himself didn’t think that idea through, leaving plenty of questions unanswered.
If you love an original world-building above anything else in your fiction it is your book. If you are rather into believable characters you can identify with, The City and the City will bore you. I liked its weirdness well enough but I am not sure Mieville will be becoming my favourite author any time soon.