While I found The Windup Girl absorbing but unpleasant, I found The City & The City, by China Mieville more pleasant, but — up until the last third — soporific. Much of the pleasure comes from the language, not just in the prose, but in the invented languages, Besz and Illitan, and the invented cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma. They feel sort of Slavic and sort of Turkic, with a dash of the Germanic and a splash of Romance tossed in, so that it’s hard to pin down where exactly the setting is supposed to be any more firmly than somewhere between Asia Minor and Albania.
What made me drowsy was the slow pacing of the book, which was much more interested in describing the cities, and showing you how they interacted, and especially how they refused to interact. The story itself is a mystery with fantastic overtones that morphs into a thriller with revolutionary overtones, and yet nothing really changes. And when I got to the end I couldn’t remember the names of any of the characters.
I liked the mystery aspect. A mystery story is a great way to show the reader an interesting new world. This one begins when Inspecter Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad is called to investigate the death of a young woman found dumped in a field in his city of Beszel. After he exhausts all possibilities in Beszel, he goes to their sister city, Ul Qoma, to continue the investigation. I enjoyed the third part the most, when the clash of the various opposing forces pop Borlú out of his old life like a wine grape squeezed out of its skin. And yet in some ways, he comes back down the same person he started. He begins a cop and ends a cop, one who is more interested in enforcing rules rather than questioning whether the rules make sense, let alone whether they’re the right ones.
It left me wondering, what is this book trying to say? It’s very easy to see it as one long metaphor for cities divided into ethnicities, each living parallel lives, each dedicated to not seeing each other. Sarajevo. Jerusalem. Baghdad. That kind of separation doesn’t happen without bloodshed. In Borlú’s world, the bloodshed happened so long ago nobody knows why or even holds any grudges. He himself seems to think that this is the way things should be. He never even gives any of the people who object to being kept apart a fair hearing.
Well, I object.