One of my favorite books from a couple of years ago was Kraken by China Mieville. I enjoyed that audiobook so much that there was a part of me that had some trepidation about reading more of Mieville’s books because I worried that maybe they wouldn’t be as good as that first one, right? Please tell me that I’m not the only person that feels this way when they first discover a new writer or band.
Anyway, I overcame my perhaps unwarranted hesitancy and read Mieville’s novel previous to Kraken: The City and The City. At its core, it’s a detective novel. The setting is the rival Eastern European-ish cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma. A woman from one city is found dead in the other and haggard Beszel detective Tyador Borlu must work through the barriers in his own corrupt department as well as navigate the other city-state’s unfamiliar customs and inherent distrust to solve the crime.
Now, this might sound all pretty straightforward, but Mieville’s innovation is the locale. Beszel and Ul Qoma aren’t neighboring cities like East and West Berlin, or Buda and Pest. Their streets and buildings literally co-occupy the same space. This creates an environment in which citizens of one city are required to “unsee” and “unhear” the citizens of the other, even though they might be walking down the same street or sitting on the same park bench. Monitoring everyone from both cities is the (almost) all-seeing secret police, Breach, which ruthlessly “disappears” offenders that break the rules of separation.
Of course, Mieville is too subtle a writer to spell things out with exposition. He just dunks you right in and makes you figure the nuances of this world out for yourself. For me, this caused the first several chapters to be downright disorienting. And I found that slightly off-balance feeling staying with me during the entire book – which I’m pretty sure was the intention all along.
The overlapping cities and the beaten down, paranoid police-state culture that comes with it are the real stars of the book and create a palpable noir feel. Of course, the construct invites clear parallels to our own society, whether it’s “unseeing” the homeless person you walk past everyday, or “unhearing” facts that disagree with your own political worldview, or having a population that’s willfully ignorant. These contemplations lingered with me long after I put the book down.
The City and The City is solid detective mystery set in one of the most original backgrounds I’ve come across in a long time that can even induce a little self-reflection. See? Nothing to worry about.
Four solid stars.