When I first read Perdido Street Station, I was both terrified and mystified by the talent of this author. The world of Bas-Lag was a beautiful and ominous dark fantastic steampunk setting, and Miéville had more writing chops and inventive ideas in single chapters than most genre authors can conceive throughout their entire careers. Perdido Street Station is quite possibly the finest dark fantasy I've ever read, a testament to world building which puts so many peers to shame. Embellishing roots fantasy tropes with a dark urban style, ala 'New Weird', it's clear that China is fascinated with cities. Even The Scar, which was set at sea, involved a unique and rag-tag city of various craft and flotilla.
I was personally disheartened when Miéville decided to take a break from Bas-Lag to sample other genres. Un Dun Lun simply wasn't for me, but not at all a bad read for anyone perusing the kid's section for something fresh and inviting. Still, I can understand the man's motivation not to burn himself out. For his new novel, China has delved into the mystery thriller, with that dash of conspiracy that will be familiar to fans of his previous work.
WARNING: This is a very new novel, and there are potential spoilers ahead. Skip to the rating if you plan on reading the book and don't want it spoiled!
The City & the City is set in the fictional neighboring city-states of Ul Qoma and Beszel, somewhere in Eastern Europe. The cities became separate during something known as the Cleavage, and through hints in the story we are led to believe that the region was once home to a fascinating civilization with unusual technologies. Much of Ul Qoma and Beszel occupies the same physical space, the cities overlap and thus 'crosshatch'. However, from a very young age the citizens of both are trained to 'unsee' one another, that is to completely ignore the presence of their neighbors, even when using the same public works or buildings. This is a pretty fascinating concept and China stays true to this even through the close of the book. It's the 'New Weird' of this novel.
When someone fails to 'unnotice' a person from the neighboring province, they incur something known as Breach. Breach is basically this almost supernatural law enforcement group (kind of like the CIA) which will silence locals or export foreigners who 'breach'. They can also be invoked by the governments of the cities to investigate particular crimes. Breach is another of the great ideas in the book, but unfortunately it peters out in the climax of the story.
Our protagonist is an investigator from Beszel, named Tyador Borlu, who is investigating the mysterious murder of a Canadian student of Ul Qoma. The investigation leads Borlu into a web of intrigue and conspiracy. A subversive corporate figure and a scheming academic have both set into motion an event which will cause a rebellion of splinter groups who desire the unification of the cities, if only to cover up their own ambitions (for example, the corporation wants to study and 'steal' some of the Pre-Cleavage artifacts and technology). For some strange reason, Breach is not invoked to cover the murder, so eventually Borlu has to take his investigation from Beszel into Ul Qoma, where he is teamed up with an angry but well-meaning cop named Dhatt to get to the bottom of things. Because as long as you have an official visitation pass...you can go to the other city.
And this, unfortunately, is where I nearly lost my mind. The whole idea of these two peoples occupying the same space and 'unseeing' one another is fantastic, but it's excrutiatingly hard for me take seriously when they can simply get official 'papers' to travel to the other, even as a street vendor or delivery man! I get that this is a metaphor for stupid social stratifications, bereaucracy, political boundaries, and so forth, but it wound up truly downplaying one of the key ingredients of the novel. It's that same sort of self-defeating post 1984/Fahrenheit 451 concept which ruins a lot of dystopian fiction (like the Equilibrium film, for example, with it's 'no emotions' society that is constantly expressing emotions by, even when 'not'...). Another thing that irked me here is once Tyador winds up breaching himself and then essentially becomes an agent of Breach, another of the fascinating mysteries of the novel is revealed a little too early, and thus downplayed. Surely, we still can't explain the almost supernatural grace and presence of Breach, but hearing them argue and talk on cellphones kind of dulled things.
As for the rest, it's actually not bad. Tyador is a strong detective character and I like that China fused the characters' dialogue with the doppelganger of an East European English dialect. Once you get past the first 50 or so pages (a rather typical mystery novel opener) into the mysteries of the setting, the book starts to pick up pace. The investigation has the usual twists and turns of a mystery novel, and the presence of what we can't 100% perceive to be supernatural or science fiction, or the mundane really gives it the flavor of a Philip K. Dick book. Some of the side characters like the compulsory, cussing Corwi are fun, but the majority are throwaway. In particular I didn't care for the antagonists, who were cardboard cut outs. There is one very cool interchange between the corporate Croft as he leaves the scene in the end, giving a tongue lashing to the silly way of life, but otherwise none of the villains are at all memorable.
I can't fault any lack of creativity here, but even if I credit him for sticking to it, Miéville's central hook here just fell flat for me, almost like the past few M Night Shyamalan flicks (okay...not that flat). I wanted to love this novel. It started off dull, picked up in strength, then just kind of went 'splat' against the windshield of my attention span. Those hoping for the near suffocating wealth of dark intrique and world building in his Bas-Lag novels will find a bit of a Perdido 'lite' feel to the book, but I'm really hoping he returns to that world within the next few years. Until then, I'll just have to wait and see which genre hop he makes next.
Verdict: Indifference [6/10]