Review: The City and The City

Summary: I’m in awe of this book, and I like to think that I don’t awe easily. It has stuck with me since I finished it; the surest sign of an effective story. I give it a 4.8/5, the highest rating I’ve given since I started this decimal point thing.

What I liked least:

  1. The quotes and reviews on the cover and at the front. That may seem an odd complaint, but this book was given to me as a gift a couple of years ago and I put off reading it because everyone made it sound so depressing. Anything billed as a Kafka-meets-noir-crime-novel doesn’t go to the beach with me, yet this book could have and should have. I wish I’d read it years ago.
  2. The end. I might as well get it out here at the start. I’ll say no more about it, but there were so many ways for this story to go and while I can think of much worse endings, the one that happened wasn’t one of the possibilities I wanted. So it goes.
Author China Mielville

What I liked best:

  1. Everything else, but I’ll try to be more specific.
  2. The author takes an absolutely ridiculous premise, answers your every objection to it while telling the story, and leaves you accepting an alternate history wherein two independent city states exist in the same geographical place, each refusing to see the other.
  3. Once you make that leap, you start to realize how believable the premise is because it touches on ways real humans behave. Then you start to find examples of unseeing all around you and I don’t know how long that goes on for because it’s been a week now and I’m still doing it. I may never stop.
  4. The book is not depressing, at least to me. The reason is that many if not most of the characters have a shred of human decency in them and the main ones hide kind hearts under their tough and expletive laden exteriors. Yes, the overall style is crime novel noir, with a touch of cold war spy and splashes of absurdity, but any time we actually get good guys and gals trying to do what’s right, I’m willing to stand up and cheer.
  5. Main characters are well fleshed out given the author’s sparse strokes. Inspector Tyador Borlu of the City of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad, the book’s protagonist and narrator, won my sympathy during the opening scene as he looks out for the young drug dealers who come forward when they find a body. He cemented my high regard when he met the dead girl’s parents and noted how “Grief made them look stupid. It was cruel.”
  6. When Borlu is forced to meet and work with his counterpart, senior detective Qussim Dhatt of the ignored city Ul Qoma, one sees through Borlu’s eyes and is lead to think the man is a jerk. We discover, along with Borlu, how much the two detectives have in common.
  7. I’m female, and I judge how a writer handles his or her women characters. Mr. Mieville treats them all as people, a refreshing delight. In particular, constable Lizbyet Corwi is a tough capable detective, no less female for not being some man’s love interest.
  8. The book is a mix of ingredients one would never expect to work as well together as they do. There is humor, as residents of each city joke about how their weather is better and visit their local Starbucks, which of course has shops in both cities. There is mystery and suspense, some of which surrounds a 2000 year old archaeological dig that may hold the secret to the origin of this bizarre arrangement. Some things are never solved or explained, others reach a satisfying conclusion.
  9. Finally, this author won me over with his dedication. It’s to his mother, which is common enough, but he adds that he “wanted to write a book that my mother would have loved.” Wow. I wish I could have met his mother.

I often get asked to name the writers who inspired me as an author, and I have trouble coming up with a list. Part of the reason is I tend to be inspired by specific books, rather than bodies of work, and the other is the degree to which the list has morphed as I’ve aged.

My approach is to keep a short list of books I can point to and say “I’m trying to write that well.” The City and the City has placed itself at the top of my list.

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