The City and the City
Beszel and Ul Qoma are two different cities - sharing the same geographical location somewhere in Eastern Europe. They exist apart from each other in a different type of dimension, yet have many intersecting points throughout the cities. The people in Ul Qoma "unsee" anything or anyone in Beszel. The people in Beszel "unsee" anything or anyone in Ul Qoma.
Tyador Barlu is a member of the Extreme Crime Squad in Beszel. He is called to the scene of a dumped woman's body. The crime appears to be normal for that type of crime. Then he learns who the victim is. She was a graduate student from the United States working on her PhD in archeology in Ul Qoma. She may have been killed in Ul Qoma, then her body was brought to and dumped in Beszel.
Now Barlu needs to investigate deeper without causing an international incident between the two cities, or "Breach". His leads take him to the fringe groups of nationalists wanting one city or the other to prevail or the unificationists who want the two cities to merge. Either way, these groups fall just short of treasonous. He also has to work in Ul Qoma so gets a visa and crosses the border to the other city. Ul Qoma detective Qussim Dhatt in his liaison.
The more the two men dig, the more they learn about the reactionaries and students. People from outside the cities don't understand the fundamental niceties of differences between the two cities. While the nationalists and unificationists understand the difference, they want to break down the walls between the cities. The dead girl was mixed up in these groups. Is that why she was killed?
The City and the City is an odd, intriguing story. I've been hearing about China Mieville for years, but this is the first work of his that I have read. The book is told on Barlu's first person voice, setting up the perspective of the two cities sharing the same space yet still separate...sort of. While I have a hard time visualizing the concept of the two cities, Mieville makes it believable. He pays attention to the details to bring the cities to life, such as the airlines that serve the two cities. Politically the United States refuses to acknowledge Ul Qoma, so if a U.S. citizen is visiting the area, that person must visit Beszel, not Ul Qoma. The visitor would have been required to have weeks worth of training in "unseeing" before finally being allowed into the city.
The "unseeing" is the fascinating part of the book. While in Ul Qoma, Barlu visits the street that matches up with his home in Beszel. He is able to see the building where he lives. But he's not allowed to look or acknowledge anything he sees in the Beszel part of the territory. While in Ul Qoma, he must pretend his home city doesn't exist. When he is home, Ul Qoma doesn't exist. There are people who must be "unseen". Residents of one city cannot indicate someone from the other city may be sharing the space in one of the thin areas where the cities cross. They effectively have to "unsee" the other people, yet at the same time be aware enough to avoid car accidents that may Breach cities. They have to not walk into each other or step in a hole that may belong in the other city but is in the shared area. You can stand at one of the thin area borders, but not purposefully look into the other city. I had thoughts about the "unseeing" itself. Those I posted on my blog.
There's a lot going on in The City and the City. Mieville keeps his story line tight. The mystery progresses easily and believably. The reader doesn't get a glimpse of the two cities unique properties until the second or third chapter. It starts like a standard mystery. It's only when they figure the woman was killed in Ul Qoma and dumped in Beszel that the cities' plot starts to be presented.
As I said earlier, The City and the City has an intriguing plot. This is a good book for a science fiction fan to read. It's not always easy, and at times confusing, but Mieville sticks to his self-determined rules for the cities so it unwinds again to seem real. I didn't see the final twist to Barlu's life coming, but once it happened I knew it was the logical and right ending for him. Be prepared to have your conceptions about geography challenged and perhaps ripped apart.
Notice: Non-graphic violence, Very strong indecent language, Suggestive dialogue or situations
These reviews are personal opinions only and in no way reflect other readers' opinions of the books discussed.
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