Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
The City & the City - China Miéville Mieville is the sort of author I expect and want to like, but I didn't feel the love with "The Scar" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/72921519). This second foray into his works was far more rewarding, and my third, Embassytown, was even more so (there are some interesting parallels, too, which I've outlined in my review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/396183492).

I enjoyed the concept, the wordplay, and the impossibility of categorisation: it's a detective story, but it's set in a world that is not exactly dystopian or futuristic or fantastic - but it isn't quite realistic either!

One of the characters sums it up nicely, "There's a series of random and implausible crises that make no sense other than if you believe the most dramatic possible shit. And there's a dead girl." It is self-referential in another way: a book called "Between The City and The City" is mentioned several times. Very meta. ;)

The title relates to a divided city that operates as separate cities, but it's not like Berlin, Budapest, Belfast or Jerusalem because the two cities (Beszel and Ul Qoma) occupy the same geographical space. Instead, the separation is psychological and sensorial: citizens of each learn to unsee, unhear and even unsmell anything from the other city. If they don't, they invoke the vague but terrifying wrath of Breach. There is also the mythical secret place/power of Orciny. It is this brilliantly weird central premise that makes the book so good. If you don't know about it when you start reading it, the clues are gradually built up, but knowing it, as I did, didn't spoil my enjoyment.

Ultimately, the division is maintained by consent, like the Emperor's New Clothes: "It's not just us keeping them apart. It's everyone in Beszel and Ul Qoma... It works because you don't blink. That's why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn't work. So if you don't admit it, it does." Mind you, there is very limited political freedom in either city (UQ is a one-party state and in Besz, dissident groups are monitored - and both cities are under the mysterious power of Breach), so the idea of consent is somewhat moot.

This situation creates a variety of intriguing and sometimes amusing complications and paradoxes which hamper police operations. The impetus of the story is the discovery and subsequent investigation of a woman's body, and uncertainty about which domain the crime occurred in. There are disputed zones - shades of Rumsfeld's "known unknowns" and even when authority is agreed, the normal difficulties of solving a crime are compounded by the complexity of the two cities. It's difficult to get witness statements from people who are used to unseeing people and things, and who are ever fearful of accidentally seeing what they should not. There are even "Places that no one can see because they think they're in the other city". Chasing criminals without breaching is comical, but crucial. "Smuggling itself is not breach, though most breach is committed in order to smuggle."

These issues raise all sorts of questions about the nature and power of the state and its police (one of the cities - maybe both? - allows only one political party), and particularly about the relevance of intent in determining whether something is a crime. "Because you may not see the justice of what we do doesn't mean it's unjust" (neither does it mean it is just).

I'm not really a follower of detective stories, either on the page or on screen, but Mieville tips a hat to many of the clichés of the genre: good cop (Borlu)/bad cop (various, fluctuating, minor), the sparky relationship between partners (Borlu with Corwi and later with Dhatt), following hunches, breaking the rules for the greater good, messy love life, a few car chases and so on.

The chapters are mostly short and punchy, and each ends with a revelation or cliff-hanger (or both). Yet it doesn't feel hackneyed, perhaps because the setting is so startlingly original. In fact, Mieville confronts the risk of cliché head-on, saying of one character "His fidelity to the cliché transcended the necessity to communicate".

Mieville has fun with neologisms and a few existing but esoteric words. At times he explicitly defines them when context and etymology make that unnecessary (e.g. gudcop and mectec), which is irksome, but nevertheless, some of the words are good. For example:
* Grosstopically: Two locations, each in a different city, but occupying the same geographical space in other terms.
* Topolganger: When grosstopical places look alike.
* Alterity: Alternative, a grosstopically equivalent place, "A Besz dweller cannot walk a few paces next door into an alter house without breach".
* Insiles: Sort of the opposite of exiles.
* Glasnostroika: Glasnost + Perestroika, and the cities have echoes of central and eastern Europe.
* Gallimaufrians are mentioned: perhaps a nod to Dr Who?
* Cleavage: The reason for there being two cities - in both senses of the word: "was it schism or conjoining"... "split or convergence"?
* Crosshatching: A whole new meaning to a familiar word.

As in The Scar, there are a few awkward or ugly sentences that I had to reread, but far fewer. A couple of examples (for my own reference more than anything else):
"He came to UQ, from where he went to B, managed I do not know how to go between the two of them - legally I assure you - several times, and he claimed..." Just adding a single comma would make all the difference.
"Unlike for my distance viewing of the night, up close the walls blocked off the site from watchers."

There are others that are convoluted in a clever and amusing way, though: "I couldn't help fail to completely unsee"!

I think my only quibble with the story-telling is the quantity of rushed explanation and exposition towards the end, rather as Goldfinger or another James Bond baddie would do.

* A dead body: "skin smooth that cold morning, unbroken by gooseflesh... like someone playing at dead insect, her limbs crooked, rocking on her spine... Her face was set in a startled strain. She was endlessly surprised by herself."
* "Architecture broken by alterity... The local buildings are taller... so Besz juts up semi regularly and the roof-scape is almost a machicolation... laced by the shadows of girded towers that would loom over it if they were there."
* "Those most dedicated to the perforation of the boundary... had to observe it most carefully."
* At an archaeological site, "Security guards, keeping safe these forgotten then remembered memories".
* "the explosive percussion of the bullet into the wall... Architecture sprayed."
* There is an unreal, almost supernatural quality of Breach (and their forces have a distinctive and intimidating gait): "The soundlessness was enervating... he was a cutout of darkness, a lack... clothes as vague as my own... Their faces were without anything approaching expressions. They looked like people-shaped clay in the moments before God breathed out." And yet it turns out that Breach uses cameras to watch the fringes (shades of Peake's "Titus Alone"), when I was expecting something less tangible.
* "Students might stand, scandalously, touching distance from a foreign power, a pornography of separation."
* A helicopter is "percussion in the otherwise empty locked-down sky".
* "Schroedinger's pedestrian... That gait... rootless and untethered, purposeful and without a country... He.. strode with pathological neutrality."

I didn't get hung up on which real world cities might have inspired this (I doubt there would be a simple answer). However, I was interested in the ways in which they apparently differed, the "intense learning of cues" required of all children (and the few tourists). "We pick up on styles of clothing, permissible colours, ways of walking and holding oneself." Some colours are actually illegal in one city, and one is more diverse (UQ has more Asians, Africans and Arabs, and it has spicier food, whereas Beszel has a more potato-based diet).

As a reader, one has to learn these cues very gradually. Even half way through I didn't have a very clear picture of the different appearance, culture or politics, other than that UQ was somewhat richer, more technologically advanced and with better archaeological sites.

Their languages use different alphabets and it is heretical to say they are the same, and yet they are mutually intelligible.

Borlu, the hero and from whose point of view the story is told, is from Beszel, but I would rather live in UQ.

The book mentions fracturedcity.org - twice - but it just redirects to http://www.randomhouse.com/!

I read this in the middle of reading Alistair Reynolds' "Century Rain" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/498532574). Neither is typical of the author's works, but both are noirish detective thrillers, featuring archaeologists and set in two versions of a city, albeit a very different sort of separation. Reading one enhances enjoyment of the other.

An interesting Q&A with China, here on GR: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/566606-ask-china-mi-ville, including references to TC&TC.

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China Miéville, Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake