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The City & the City by China Mieville (thoughts)

April 5, 2012

I read Mieville for the first time in December when I took Kraken with me on a trip. I really, really enjoyed it, but I also had a few reservations that stopped it from being a five-star read. So when I saw that Karen’s book group had The City & the City scheduled for their March discussion, I jumped at the chance to give him another go.

And oh my gosh, I loved this book So. Much. The style is a kind of homage to crime noir, but it’s not too gritty. And there’s all of these delicious political discussions. Not to mention the general wonderfulness of the premise and the way Melville slowly shares more and more information on that point! I went into it completely blind, which made watching it unfold just fascinating. In case you’re a blank slate reader like myself, feel free to stop reading now with the knowledge that this is a wonderful book that I highly, highly recommend to anyone who enjoys a touch of the experimental, a lot of intelligence, and a good dose of playfulness in their fiction.

Are we set? Ok, let’s get into some of the details. So, the two cities described in the book exist in the exact same geographical location, and yet are in two different countries. The citizens of each side are trained from childhood to ‘unsee’ anything that belongs in the other country: people, buildings, cars, etc. While some of the areas are entirely in one country or another (for instance, the west side of a street might be in one, the east in the other), there are other places that are ‘cross-hatched.’ That means that citizens of both countries are walking along in the exact same place, but they mustn’t see each other. Isn’t this awesome!? And trust me, Melville does a great job of fleshing things out, from the mandatory training sessions potential tourists have to undergo in order to get a visa to folk sayings referencing how rain and smells know no boundaries. This is one of those novels where the setting is at least as important as the plot, although the plot was quite fun too (and far more straightforward than Kraken, to say the least). As I said, it has a film noir kind of feel but also plays with the tropes of traditional urban fantasy novels and their different ‘worlds’. One of the things I found most powerful about The City & the City is that it’s at the same time incredibly realistic (an effect of the detective’s narrating voice and Mieville grounding the city in central Europe, complete with Balkan refugee dilemmas) but not completely closed off from the idea of urban fantasy.

This is also the kind of book that is really, really fun to talk about! Even though most of the book group weren’t huge fans (I was the only one that wholeheartedly loved it), I still very much enjoyed the meeting. It’s a wonderfully rich novel that has a very contemporary/relevant feel but also includes some loving nods to the past. If I knew someone who was skeptical of novels but loved reading nonfiction, especially the types of books one might see The Economist reviewing, this would be at the top of my recommendations list. Mieville has used an imaginary place with truly extraordinary qualities to explore important aspects of our regular, modern lives. I adored every page of The City & the City and cannot wait to read more Mieville in the future.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2012 6:16 am

    I love it when you’re gushy mcgushster ;) I actually own this, so no excuses not to read it! Mieville is so awesome <3.

  2. April 5, 2012 6:17 am

    I’m SO glad you liked this book as it’s also one of my favourites! I’ve been recommending it left, right and centre to everyone who’ll listen to me:) I found the concept of putting two different cities in one geographical location so strange and kept thinking it couldn’t possibly work. And yet Mieville makes it work. Stunning.

  3. bookgazing permalink
    April 5, 2012 6:29 am

    I really enjoyed this one, but I always find myself pre-occupied when anyone says they’ve read it with what they thought of the ending. The whole Breach thing is so out there, even beyond your ‘normal’ genre bending type writing. And what is Breach?!

  4. April 5, 2012 10:14 am

    You make me want to read it now. Right now. The only Mieville I have read is Kraken and I loved it. Raced through.

  5. April 5, 2012 10:56 am

    I haven’t read any of Mieville’s novels, but this one surely sounds amazing!

  6. April 5, 2012 1:53 pm

    this been on my wish list for ever never got to it yet ,you have made me want to try it for sure I ll get a copy from library as I know they have it had it my hands a few times ,love idea of two worlds in same space ,all the best stu

  7. April 5, 2012 2:44 pm

    I’ve been meaning to read something from this author for way too long. This sounds like a great place to start.

  8. boardinginmyforties permalink
    April 5, 2012 3:42 pm

    For want of a better word this sounds so INTERESTING and definitely would be a good one to discuss with others. I’m sure I already have this on my list but sadly I have yet to check this one out or read anything else by this author!

  9. April 5, 2012 4:38 pm

    I got a copy of this after Sakura recommended it, but then I heard one or two negative reviews from friends, so I’m delighted that you’re such a fan (and stopped reading at the blank-slate bit!) Will definitely have to try it for myself.

  10. April 5, 2012 9:01 pm

    I’m so glad you loved this book because I was so fascinated with it the whole time reading it. The whole concept of the city is amazing and mind-bending and yet not so mind-bending that it became incomprehensible. I read Un Lun Dun over this past Christmas and loved it too.

  11. April 6, 2012 2:21 am

    I’ve got Perdido Street Station on my TBR shelf, I think I’ve been putting it off because it’s so huge!

  12. April 6, 2012 12:31 pm

    Your description makes it sound like an adult version of the themes he started exploring in UnLunDun.

  13. April 6, 2012 4:49 pm

    Hmm, I actually don’t know if I’d enjoy this. It almost sounds like the kind of novel I’d WANT to enjoy but I’m nervous I wouldn’t love it as you did. But I’m definitely interested enough by your review to give it a try!

  14. April 6, 2012 6:17 pm

    I wish my book club would nominate this for us to read! I tried reading it twice and couldn’t get past the noir thing — I am SO not a fan of noir-feeling books — but if we were reading it for book club, I’d have to read it. I wouldn’t have a choice. Because it would be book club! And then I think I could get past the noir thing and get far enough in for the story to grab me.

  15. April 6, 2012 8:55 pm

    I really enjoyed this book. I have enjoyed everything I have read by him so far, actually. I haven’t read Kraken yet, but I will have to check it out at some point!

  16. April 7, 2012 7:24 am

    I’ve read Un Lun Dun and enjoyed it. I have The City & The City on my shelf and I’ve been moving it up and down on my to-read list, never really convincing myself to read it. But I think your review was the final push and I will read it very soon.

  17. aartichapati permalink
    April 7, 2012 12:34 pm

    I’ve not read any Mievelle before, and I realize that this is a huge gap in my reading life. However, my library is not well-stocked with him and, while in a university with only three weeks to go, I feel like I should utilize the library more for non-fiction reading. But maybe I’ll do Mievelle on audiobook once I start working and commuting again.

  18. April 7, 2012 5:34 pm

    I’ve never read any of Mieville’s stuff, but I always LOOOOOVE the premise of every one I read about. This one included. Glad it was such a good reading adventure, Eva!

  19. April 10, 2012 9:47 pm

    I love noir, so ok, I’ve got to get this book! I have Kraken sitting on my shelf to read for Carl’s Challenge, and I’m looking forward to it. I know the styles change between the two books, so it’s interesting that you really liked this one – LOVED this one – and liked Kraken, but not loved as much.

  20. April 11, 2012 6:43 am

    Even though I wasn’t a huge fan, I’m really glad you liked it and that you came to the group — it was nice to have someone who got more out of it than the rest of us! I guess I’m just not a huge urban fantasy person, but I’m glad I tried something new. I do admire how Mieville created a new type of world that I’d never imagined. . . and I still haven’t posted my own review!

  21. pingwingsbookshelf permalink
    April 12, 2012 6:38 am

    Well, you’ve got me interested in this book now! I struggled with Kraken, but your review is so enthusiastic that I want to give Mieville’s work another chance! This is now on my TBR list!

  22. April 12, 2012 6:35 pm

    I loved this too! The other Mieville I would recommend is Perdido St Station, though it’s quite different (a lot more fantasy elements, for one). Haven’t read Kraken, but am interested to do so.

  23. Androw permalink
    April 13, 2012 8:03 am

    great thinking.

  24. samantha1020 permalink
    April 14, 2012 9:41 pm

    I’ve had this one on my TBR list for some time now. I hate to say that I haven’t tried this author yet even though his books sound like my type of reads. I REALLY need to give this one a try at some point. And I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it so much!


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