My rating: 3 of 5 stars
[WARNING This Review Contains Spoilers]
There are a great many things to like about this book. The characters are fun and likable. There’s a fun murder mystery driving the plot (with intrigue and conspiracy around every corner!). And the setting (the two cities of the title) is one of the more memorable and interesting that I’ve seen in a long time.
But there are also a great many things about this book that I do not like. And because I’m a negative person, I will spend far more time talking about them than I will the positives.
The writing style is…interesting. It’s written from the first-person perspective of the main character, Inspector Borlú. And, of course, Borlú has lived in his city (Besźel) for his entire life, so the peculiarities of its situation are not something he thinks to explain.
I’ll give the secret away here: Besźel and Ul Qoma are two cities (really, city states) which exist in the same physical location. The whole thing works because the citizens of the cities very carefully and studiously anything that isn’t “in” their own city. This unique situation has necessarily evolved its own vocabulary: crosshatching, unseeing/unsmelling/unhearing/etc., breach, Breach-with-a-capital-B, grosstopically, and so on. It took four or five chapters for me to really get comfortable with what was happening, and even through the end, I spent a lot of time going “Huh?” and trusting that eventually Borlú would let me know what was going on.
Now, obviously, this is a perfectly fine writing style. And it certainly adds a certain verisimilitude to the first person telling. I just don’t care for it personally: I don’t like surprises and I like to know what I’m reading. I prefer to solve my mysteries along with the protagonist and not have him creating a meta-mystery for me to unravel. But that’s just a matter of taste.
Where the writing style *really* falls apart is the author’s (or character’s) rather sloppy approach to writing dialog and (to a lesser extent) exposition. I suppose it’s possible that Miéville was attempting to mimic real human dialog (or even real translated dialog since most conversations are in the fictional languages of the two cities and are ostensibly translated by Borlú); but I dislike dialog like this. Real human conversation is filled with rhythm and body language and pitch pacing. Replicating just the words removes not only the beauty of the conversation but also the context. It renders conversation into a confusing mass of fragments and run-ons and interruptions that the reader has to puzzle through.
And so Miéville removes two important contexts from his book: the text itself is missing all of the context of human speech, and the story is missing the context of the reader knowing just what the hell everyone else takes for granted. With these two contexts missing, the book becomes more homework and less enjoyable. It’s still a good story: but you have to WORK to read it.
It’s worth it, though. I’m not convinced that it should’ve won a Hugo (2010 Best Novel), but it *is* good: it’s just far more literary than I’m entirely used to. But, again, that’s just a taste thing.
Interestingly, one of the huge complaints I had about it was redeemed in the last pages. Once I finally figured out what was going on with the two cities, my suspension-of-disbelief meter was pinged beyond normal tolerances. There’s just no way this would work. Imagine stepping over a dying child because she wasn’t “in” your city. Once Breach had disappeared the people who couldn’t do that, it would be two cities filled with compassionless psycopaths. But, the book made it very clear that everyone in Borlú and everyone in Ul Quoma are just regular people. It just didn’t make sense.
And then, (possibly in the epilogue; I don’t remember), someone gives it away: it wouldn’t work. It couldn’t work. And it doesn’t. Everyone pretends that it does because everyone wants it to work, and everyone goes out of their way too unsee things that aren’t supposed to be there: but the rules are broken in tiny ways millions of times a day. And that’s why the cities work. Because everyone involved wants them to. That’s something I’m comfortable with (in the same way I’m comfortable with fiat currency, zing!). So I can’t knock the book for it.
But, of course, I can’t credit it for going so long without soothing my brain, either.
I can’t recommend The City & The City. But I can’t unrecommend it either. It is what it is. Intriguing and gripping wound up tight with literary and borderline-poor-writing. Of course, it won a Hugo.
So what do I know?