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The City & the City: China Mieville – a book review

China Mieville doesn’t seem to write straightforward stories, and The City & the City is no exception. The dual settings are Beszel and Ul Qoma, two sovereign States that share the same geographical location. How two cities were created in the same space is debated but never explained in the novel which focuses instead on the effects of the enigma on the citizens of both cities.

Tyador Borlú is a detective from Beszel who investigates the murder of a woman he believes was killed in Ul Quoma and dumped in his city. The who-dun-it part of the mystery is satisfying, but it’s the way Borlú negotiates his strange environment that’s the most compelling aspect of the story.

“But pass through Copula Hall and she or he might leave Beszel, and at the end of the hall come back to exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, but in another country.”

Main themes:

  • The arbitrary nature of borders.

  • The ways nationality presents itself through customs, dress, language and architecture.

  • The use of fear and isolation as social control in repressive regimes.

  • Humans’ ability to ignore uncomfortable or dangerous truths – reflected by the ways in which citizens of both cities have learned to “unsee” each other – and the damage this does to our cognitive functions.

It takes a few chapters to become accustomed to the idea of “unseeing” or how things can be there but not there. Once you get used to how the narrative works, it’s a fascinating and entertaining read. Borlú is a sympathetic and engaging protagonist and, when he has to move his investigation to Ul Qoma, we see through his eyes the complicated dance required to see yet not see what is there.


When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.

With shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984, the multi-award winning The City & The City by China Miéville is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.

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