The City and the City by
Published by Pan MacMillan, May 2009
Review by Mark Yon
One of the first reviews I wrote for SFFWorld was a review of
In the meantime, a lot has changed. The idea of New Weird that
The book actually starts, knowingly, as a homage to detective novels. (Raymond Chandler is referenced in the acknowledgements.) Detective Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad is summoned to a homicide of a young blonde woman found on the streets of central European-like Beszel.
So far, so typically a crime novel. But of course, this being
As this masterful conceit is revealed, the reader becomes aware that the tale is more than that of a murder but actually more a tale of two cities: Beszel and Ul Qoma overlap each other in space to such a degree that you can walk from one side of a city street to the other and find yourself suddenly in the other city.
Relationships between the two cities are, as you might expect, complex. They co-exist and coordinate social, economic and cultural aspects of their respective societies surprisingly well after years of an uneasy detente. Any inappropriate actions between the two are dealt with by a nebulous third party known as Breach, who quickly ‘removes’ any issues arising from their coexistence.
The tale’s complexity expands when the victim is further found to be an archaeologist, one of a left-wing group who work in both cities. Her murder may not be an accident but instead related to her activist dealings. Though Breach is invoked, Borlu, and his able assistant, Corwi, soon discover that the case is not as simple, nor as straightforward as it first appeared to be. There is talk of a third city, Orciny, which seems to be a secret that many wish to keep.
It’s hip, it’s smart, it’s intelligent. I’m sure Orwell’s 1984, Franz Kafka (also referenced in the Acknowledgements) and Philip K Dick will be mentioned in comments relating to this novel. To those with a greater knowledge of the genre, I’d add Neil Gaiman myself. To me, The City and The City shows a writer improving and evolving his craft.
The sense of place (or perhaps places) is excellent. The streets and places evoke a sense of reality, ‘real’ places and cultural icons (such as ipods, Ethernet, and Spielberg) are peppered throughout.
As is often in the tales that may (or may not) be New Weird, it is the ending that causes most problems. Many earlier tales have been found to evoke a wonderful mood, a sense of unease that permeates through the story but then all fall apart at the end. The last third of the book, where Borlu actually enters Breach, may either infuriate or enlighten readers in equal measure. However, I found the ending to be suitably elegiac and enigmatic, with most of the problems resolved for me.
Nevertheless, I still suspect some readers may ask, What’s the big deal?, to which I have no real answer, other than to say I found this book is one of those I’ve kept thinking of and going back to after I finished it. It is a thought provoking, challenging tale that examines cultural, social and political issues without hitting you over the head with them, and has scary monsters that are not clichéd.
I’m sure that you could, if you wished, allude to connections between Beszel and Ul Qoma and Iran/Iraq and
Mark Yon, April/May 2009