The book jacket reviewers of The City & The City invoke both Kafka and Philip K. Dick and with good reason. The plotting is labyrinthine like much of Kafka’s work and startlingly original like the best of Dick. The overall concept could be seen as a metaphor for many things but this for me underplays the uniqueness of the central idea.
Like any fantasy or science fiction novel the central idea is the primary character of the story. In this case it is an Eastern European city Beszel vast, old and decaying, which somehow inhabits the space and time of another city Ul Qoma. The inhabitants can see and hear each other, however, by some ancient decree they aren’t allowed to. Transgression is punishable by some largely unknown power known as the Breach. The punishment is terrible beyond measure although this too is partly an unknown as witnessing a breach or a punishment by the Breach must immediately be unseen by the observer. The maintenance of this division has profound cultural and social implications for this region, which are functionally 2 separate countries with very different laws, governments and customs.
Throw into this situation a murder that takes place in one city with the body discovered in the other. The mere act of investigating this crime is potentially an act of breach the chief investigator Tyador Borlu must carefully navigate as breaching is considered to be a far worse crime than murder.
The characterization and plotting are excellent and the central device very convincingly described and maintained throughout. I found some of the language a little clunky at times, but this did nothing to spoil my enjoyment of the book. The novel will appeal to crime and thriller readers as much as science fiction and fantasy lovers. But those of a more literary bent should also find much to enjoy here. First timers to the speculative fiction genre may find that at times the overpowering nature of the existential division of the cities too difficult to fully internalize. That is the point and is incorporated into the novel itself with foreigners visiting from America or Canada needing training just to step out onto the street so as to not commit the gravest of crimes and ‘seeing’ the other city. With The City & The City China Mieville has produced a wonderfully original and evocative novel.