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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
The City and the City - China Miéville Two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, exist in the same physical space, completely separate in some places, coming together in other areas. Essentially city states, both fiercely maintain their autonomy from the other to such an extent that in those areas where the two extrude into each other--the crosshatchings--residents of each city are expected to ignore, or unsee/unhear residents of their neighboring city. Basically, there are locales where one can see into Ul Qoma from Beszel (and vice versa), but a Beszel citizen is expected to pretend he or she doesn't see the people or places in Ul Quoma. This prohibition is enforced ferociously by a shadowy organization know as Breach. The penalty for "breaching" is so great, that people will ignore anything of the other city, even stepping over dead bodies, if necessary.

Inspector Tyador of Beszel's Extreme Crime Squad thinks the murder of a young American woman is clearly a case for Breach. It appears that the woman, Mahalia Geary--a graduate student working at an Ul Qoma archeological dig--was murdered in Ul Qoma, her body dumped, via a breach, in Beszel.

Given that Mahalia may have been poking around in dangerous mysteries, including the rumored city between the cities, Orciny, and stirring up nationalist and unionist rebels alike, Tyador is glad to pawn the case off to Breach. Except it isn't that easy. Someone has been careful to do everything but breach. Now, not only is he stuck with the case, but he will have to conduct his investigation in Ul Qomo. Which, among other things, is a rather dizzying experience, to be in the city that he's spent most of his life "unseeing," now unseeing his own city.

Mieville is one of those writers who I don't read for characterization. At least, I never really love his characters. Many are fascinating, but never, entirely likable. Instead, I read Mieville for his settings and his ability to make a place a central character.

This time around, I just wasn't feeling the love for the setting. The underlying concepts are terrific and wonderfully mind-bendy. Two cities, existing just out of phase, so to speak. A third city that might exist in the interstices between the cities. Ancient mysteries, anachronistic technology left by some PreCursor society that hint at a culture with technology beyond our own or a perhaps the ability to manipulate the arcane. The need for humans to fiercely cleave to a tribe or nation. The power of greed.

This time around, however, all those great ideas didn't quite add up to a place that fascinated me. Not like the world of Bas Lag. In the absence of strong setting, the characterization's weaknesses are too glaring.

Inspector Tyador is rather two-dimensional. He's a cop. He seems to like his job. He approaches the murder investigation with a measure of interest and tenacity, but somehow also appears to be going through the motions. In short, he's rather passionless. And humorless. And prickly. And ... dull. His interactions with others are spiked with a peculiar animosity.

Tyador more often seems to be talking at, rather than to, everyone else. The dialogue in The City & the City is realistic, too much so for my taste. See, dialogue should feel authentic, like "real" people talking, while being crisper and more coherent. Real people stammer and stutter and wander off on tangents. This is tolerable (sometimes) when the person is sitting in front of you and you can benefit from body language and other cues to figure out what the hell they are yammering about. In fiction, however, dialogue that gets too real, that is overly afflicted with the odd starts and stops of conversation, can be rather incoherent. And that's how I found a lot of the dialogue in this novel. So real, that at times, I had to go back and reread. "Whuh-wait. Who said that? Who's he responding to? Why'd he say that?"

I suspect The City & the City is a great novel for readers who love big, thinky concepts to the exclusion of characterization (and pace). But this character-driven reader found the novel too dependent on ideas and style and lacking in plot and empathetic characters.