Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book review: "The City and the City" by China Miéville

I was recently visiting a local bookstore, and they have been having this 3-for-2 action for some time which I wanted to take advantage of. I had two books picked and planned to pick the third in spur of the moment. It turned out there wasn't any books I had considered before (and had on my wishlist) so I (somewhat unwillingly) bought "The City and the City" by China Miéville.

So far I have read only one his book, "Perdido Street Station", which I liked immensely. It is some mix of urban fantasy, science fiction and steam punk, happening in a fictional world of Bas-Lag and a city of New Crobuzon. There are two more books set in this same setting. Anyway, my point is that although I liked this book so much and had heard some really good things about Miéville (reviews of his books are continuously great), I decided not to buy his books because they are not long epic fantasy series (which is my preferred genre). My money and, much more important, my time are limited; and although I would like to read more, 3-5 books a month is currently my standard. Sadly, I don't see it becoming higher in future.

Back to the book in question. This is a very unique book and revealing much about the plot or setting would unquestionably spoil it. You will just have to believe me and multitude of other reviewers that Miéville's books are worth reading.

Basically, this is a regular thriller. It starts and ends with an investigation of a murder. Its main character is a police inspector; we have some hard-core police investigation, which later in a book grows an international conspiracy and acquires cooperation with not-so-friendly neighboring country. I am sure everybody read such books and seen movies with this generic description.

What makes this book so special is the setting. At first, it is a common one: fictional country and its capital city, somewhere in middle-east Europe (not exactly in Central Europe, but not under Russian influence either). As you start reading, everything will first look normal. But since this is a book by Chine Miéville, you expect that things will be anything but normal. So you continue and find nothing amiss, except some descriptions and names that you can't really grasp, but that don't look really unexplainable. And then, somewhere close to page 100 (and keep in mind this is a 400 pages book), it hits you in all its uniqueness and strangeness!!! And your only option then is to continue reading until you finish it...

As I said, the story is quite commonplace and so is the main character, inspector Borlú. A middle year's police inspector, smart and experienced. Somewhat smarter and more dignified that his peers, but not so much to make him a loner. The story is in first-person view and Borlú is a very good narrator. I would say he is also a common-place main character, except his compassion hidden behind a strong facade. This is especially seen in a scene later in the book, when he participates in more-brutal-than-usual police interrogation.

I liked how Miéville incorporated real-world references and details here: slow internet, movie references, real companies... Sometimes the city in the book looked quite similar to the capital of my own country, Zagreb. Although I don't think of Zagreb as romantic as the city in the book is seen - but that is probably because I am used to it.

Although I found this book great, it is not flawless. Setting is very well imagined and quite shocking at first, but the sense of shock gradually fades as you get used to it. This becomes more present as you close toward the end of the book, when all is explained and some more mysterious elements disappear. Maybe if few things were lest unexplained, a sense of wonder would remain stronger. But the story itself has enough twists to keep you interested.

Never minding this small objection, "The City and the City" is one of the best books I have read in several years, really intriguing and original. It is relatively short and it definitely doesn't belong solely to fantasy genre, so I would recommend it to everybody. As for myself, I plan to read Miéville's other works.

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