Thursday, March 3, 2011

The City and the City by China Miéville

The City and the City
by China Miéville
Del Rey, 2009
312 pages

And now back to our regular programming. Seriously though, everyone, the battle for book ownership isn't over yet -- if you haven't ever thought about who actually owns that book you're reading on your screen of choice, you should really start thinking about it now. And deciding what you think about how much you're paying for a license rather than ownership.

Okay, really, now back to our regular programming.

In a mind-bogglingly ironic move, here we have it: my first e-book reviewed on this site. (It isn't a HarperCollins book, mind you, but Random House, who so far have behaved rather admirably in this brave new world. I'll be buying this book. Maybe even in hardcover.) And it was kind of an accident; I didn't mean to read it, at all. I intended to download it as a test from the library's e-book collection, and then figure out how to return a borrowed e-book early, so that I can then train people on that in the upcoming weeks. It was to be a dummy book, a guinea pig book. Only I downloaded it and thought, I wonder what Miéville's writing is actually like. I've heard good things. So I decided I'd read the first page.

And then it was suddenly Chapter 9 and I was in no way planning to return that book until I had finished reading it, thank you very much. It took me three short days of staring at my computer screen, because I haven't purchased an e-reader yet, and sitting in an uncomfortable position staring at the screen didn't even register with me most of the time. I haven't been feeling well lately, and even that didn't really register while I was reading.

This book. If you haven't read it yet, my god, what are you waiting for? It is a brilliant piece of work, and I don't say that lightly or use "brilliant" as hyperbole. It's brilliant in the sense of incredibly intelligent, and brilliant in the sense of a shining example of great writing, great plotting, great character development -- all of these, in fact, out of the ordinary. Though I'm not sure I would call it "brilliant" in the luminous sense, as that would be misleading; this is a somewhat dark book, a tense book, a gritty mystery that can delve into the uglier side of humanity.

It's hard to write a summary without giving anything away. Part of the joy of this book is the way the layers are peeled back slowly for the reader, the way we start out as we would with a regular genre mystery, with the discovery of a woman's body and a detailed, grinding investigation, hints of drugs and prostitution and seedy back alleys. Inspector Tyador Borlú is our first-person guide, an experienced and immediately recognizable police detective. We don't know exactly what country we're in, or what city, or what laws and customs we're dealing with. Some of the terminology is a bit skewed and unfamiliar, and the names almost Eastern European. We know very quickly that Borlú and his colleagues don't converse in English. And we realize slowly, with the unfolding of both the plot and scenery, that nothing is as it seems. Both grow, at first imperceptibly, to something larger and stranger.

Things are never so strange, though, that the reader becomes lost, and we never really lose sight, thanks to our dedicated detective, of the plot: this is a murder mystery. But by the time we are well into the mystery, we are also well into the world Mieville has created to house it, and it is a fascinating, dangerous, foreign, strange place. Things Borlú knows are mentioned, dropped like clues and sometimes never picked up. But it all contributes to the flavour of the story and the world.

What I think I loved most, aside from everything, was the solution to the mystery. There are labyrinthine twists and turns throughout the whole story, red herrings aplenty, some of which are immediately discarded by both the reader and the Inspector, some of which are discarded by one or the other, and some of which are believed in doggedly until they are simply clearly not plausible any more. Barrelling towards the conclusion, even right in the climax, no one is quite sure what or who to believe anymore -- not the Inspector, and not the reader. I was in total suspense. And I don't think I can tell you anything else without ruining something, so I won't. But if anyone has read this book and wants to tell me what you thought of the way the crime is solved and what really happened, by all means do so in the comments. Rest assured that the way Miéville handles his story is perfect in every way. I am still marveling over it days later.

Most remarkable in all of this is that while this book is a fantasy, and couldn't be what it is without the fantastic elements, it's absolutely at heart a gritty murder mystery and conspiracy thriller. If you don't like fantasy, or are scared to try it, try this book anyways. It may not change your mind about fantasy, but you will have read a superlative mystery.

So, as you can see, highly, highly, highly recommended. An absolutely remarkable book. One of my best reading experiences in ages, and that is saying something. I will not only be buying it for myself, but I'll be buying it for several people I know, too.


Aarti said...

I SERIOUSLY need to read Mievelle! I want to read this one and Perdido Street Station very badly. I hope I can get to them soon :-)

Unknown said...

Me too! I'd love to see what you think of this one. Perdido Street Station is now on my list, as is Un Lun Dun and King Rat... so many books to read, so little time... Though if I can read those as quickly as I did this one, time's not so much a good excuse. Perhaps things like eating, sleeping, and saying more than two words to my husband in an evening would be a better excuse.

Marg said...

I have heard so many good things about Mieville! Thanks for the reminder.

Unknown said...

You're welcome! I think he's definitely earned the praise.