Review: The City & the City

The City and the City - China MiƩville

The City & the City is essentially a police procedural in a strange and interesting setting.  The book opens up with our main character, Inspector Tyador Borlú, arriving onto the scene where a dead woman has been found.  The story follows him as he attempts to solve the mystery. 


The setting intrigued me from the moment we were given the first hint of it at the end of the first chapter.  The story itself was ok.  It held my interest, but I wasn’t completely absorbed by it.  What made the story interesting to me was its setting and the way the setting affected the murder investigation.  The problem for me was that the story wasn’t about the setting, and that was the part I was most interested in reading about.  There was very little background given about it, and very few tangible explanations.  It still played a huge role in the story, and was still fun to read about, but I wanted more meat.


I had a heck of a time deciding how to shelve this.  I don’t like to get too complicated with my shelving.  If a book crosses genres, I try to pick whichever general genre seems to fit it the best.  If a book tells a mystery story in a science fiction or fantasy setting, then I’ll shelve it as either science fiction or fantasy.  But this book?  I don’t know.  On Goodreads, the majority of members have shelved it as fantasy.  That surprises me, but maybe most people took certain aspects of this story a lot more literally than I did.  Science fiction doesn’t really fit either, although I’d buy into that more readily than I’d buy into the fantasy label.  In the end, I decided to just stick with the one thing I was sure of and shelve it as “mystery”.  :)


I have some more comments about the setting, but I’ll have to put them behind spoiler tags:


I really, really wanted to know the history of how the city came to be fractured the way it was.  We were given some very vague and generic theories, but nothing tangible.  I guess the explanation wouldn’t really have fit properly in the story, since none of the characters knew the answer themselves.  


As I read, I was constantly trying to decide whether or not the city was actually, physically divided in some way or if it was all psychological and cultural.  In the end, I decided it was psychological/cultural since people and objects could easily pass between the cities as if they had just walked across a normal street.  The people in Breach also didn’t seem, once we saw them in action, to have any special abilities beyond training to help them blend in and access to technology to help them keep tabs on what was going on.  I think each country at some point in the past, for some reason nobody knows, took possession of different parts of the city and built those parts up with their own architectural style.  But I wanted to know how it got that way.  It seems like there’s interesting story potential there.


We also weren’t really told why breach was such a big taboo either, although it’s a little easier to speculate why two different countries with tense relations would want to maintain (or simulate, anyway) strict borders.  The concept of “unseeing” was a fun one, and it added an interesting element to the murder investigation.  I could completely buy into the idea that people who grew up in this setting would find it natural to unsee the “foreign” people and their city even though they were really sharing the same city.  People in the real world also learn to unsee things they don’t want to see, although maybe not quite on this scale.

(show spoiler)