(2009) China Mieville, Macmillan, £17.99, hrdbk, 312 pp, ISBN 978-1-405-00017-8
It has been two years since Mieville’s last book, the children’s fantasy Un Lun Dun, and he had used that time well to come up with something different - yet again- moving away, and on, from the urban horrors of King Rat and the alternative, fantastic world featured in Perido Street Station and Iron Council. Yet, perhaps, The City and ytiC ehT (or more conventionally The City and the City) too is grounded in alternative reality and the idea of the different city that 'Un Lun Dun' was. Here, we have what seems to be a straightforward murder mystery investigated by Inspector Borlu of the Beszian Extreme Crime Squad, but with some string theory and up-to-date theoretical physics making it not as straightforward as it seems for Beszel, due to something known as The Cleaving, occupies the same space as the city of UI Qoma. The relationship between the cities is complicated and overseen by the all-powerful and strict secret police who patrol the borders known as the Breach. People have the ability to see each other in these separate cities but are prevented from making contact, and have learned to 'unsee', to walk past, to not notice, which complicates the police investigation. Everything about the cities is different, in fact who you think is your neighbour may belong to another city, another world. Borlu is convinced that the murder of a young woman in a housing estate is more than a routine murder that he should be investigating. It involves both cities, and is outwith his authority and jurisdiction, but in order to solve the crime, he must cross into that other world, where things are very different, where the other city is more affluent and archaeological digs have led to the possibility that a third city, Orciny, co-exists alongside the other two, but Borlu must dig deeper for answers and may have to 'breach' the Breach to find them.
All of this may sound complicated, but should not detract from the fact that Mieville has managed to write a page-turner, albeit it may seem a bit leisurely at times and a bit too controlled. He has created two very distinctive worlds, or cities within the same city-space. At one level this is a crime story; at another it is surreal, a fantasy; and if you want to take it that way Mieville is commenting on any number of things that have happened, or are happening, in our world right now. In a way he may even never have left London. This is a novel that reminds me of Lucias Shepard’s gorgeous vampire detective story The Golden and also William Kotzwinkle’s Fata Morgana where Inspector Picard must investigate the fortune telling Ric Lazare and falls into something more fantastic, and deadly. It reminds me of Chris Beckett’s “Marcher”, and I suppose, it reminds me, inevitably of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but as far as I am concerned, if that’s the case, Mieville is in good company. Recommended.
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