Book Review: The City and the City

Thursday 6 November 2014 by

The City and the City, China Miéville, Pan Macmillan, BookThe City and the City by China Miéville

Published by Pan Macmillan

China Miéville delivers his most accomplished novel yet, an existential thriller taken to dazzling metaphysical artistic heights.

When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary decaying city of Besźel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But, as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger, and Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.


China Miéville is a notoriously brilliant, if under-estimated, writer and The City and the City is perhaps one of his most famous works. It tells the story of Inspector Borlú as what, on first glance, looks like a routine murder investigation turns in to something much more complicated and dangerous.

The crux of the issue is the fact that Besźel shares its geographical location with another city. The cities sit on top of each other, but rely on the fact that neither city acknowledges each other. It would be useless for me to try to explain any more than that; mainly because I couldn’t if I tried. Miéville masters it seamlessly, showing and not telling and yet revealing only enough that you see glimpses.

Borlú is a compelling character, although suffers every now and then from cardboard-cut-out syndrome and inexplicable motives. But he doesn’t fall out of favour – you forgive him the flawed character profile because he is the centre of a brilliant story.

Miéville’s city-upon-a-city concept is (as far as my reading has gone) totally unique, and yet doesn’t feel strained or half-imagined, and you are never left with that doubtful feeling you get with really bad sci fi. And as far as crime stories go, it was entertaining, with enough dead ends and conspiracy to keep you and Borlú on your toes. However, the twist wasn’t hugely surprising – although I managed to last about three quarters of the novel before I guessed it, I did guess the whodunit before Borlú (bar GRRM’s Red Wedding, I have yet to find a novel that can completely blindside me with a reveal).

I am a new Miéville fan – his world building is impeccable, and although his characters could perhaps use some TLC (especially his supporting cast, who barely make it out of the shadows), they are entertaining enough to keep you hooked. There is a warmth and naturalness to his writing that invites you in; this is a drinking buddy telling you a story over a pint and a shared packet of peanuts, or a comedic friend regaling the latest escapade during a dinner party. The voice is totally natural, comforting almost, and puts you at ease instantly.

On a Would I Recommend It scale from never to why-aren’t-you-reading-it-right-now, it probably sits neatly in the middle – inoffensive, it will be comfortable with most readers, but the city-upon-a-city concept is its greatest strength and so unless you feel you can step sideways in to the realms of unreality, you may feel underwhelmed. Whatever happens, I will be reading Miéville again!

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