Recently as part of my MA, I was required to read, The City in the City and with the announcement that a BBC Two Adaptation is due at some point this spring, I thought I’d share my thoughts.
The City in the City by China Mieville is a police procedural, detective fiction following Inspector Tyador Borlu as he investigates the murder of a foreign student found dead in Beszel. The central plot of the novel follows the investigation as it unfolds with, twists, turns and hints at deeper conspiracy. While the novel on the surface is a hard-boiled detective fiction featuring a number of tropes you would associate with the genre, there is a great deal about this novel that is both intriguing and A-typical. However, detective fiction is not the only genre that shows itself in this novel, there is a fantastical Orwellian style police force with strange and mystical powers and a setting so integral to the plot that the story line wouldn’t work anywhere else.
The two cities that the novel takes place in are for the most part occupying the space of a single geographical city; however due to the will of the Mythical Breach, and active participation of the citizens living there they are separate; Ul Qoma and Beszel. This separation was for me both the most interesting and the most difficult part of this novel. For while it is unique and creates some interesting dynamics that play out throughout the novel it is also difficult to adjust to, and with no background information it is very easy to get lost trying to work out what breaching and crosshatching is. In fact I daresay if this book hadn’t been a course text, I likely would have discarded it as ‘not for me’
I’m glad I didn’t as once I worked out what the alien terminology meant and began to get my head around the world in which the novel was taking place, The City in the City began to come into its own with fascinating conspiracies and interactions between the two cities. While I wont go into details and risk spoiling the novel I will say that the concept is probably the strongest aspect of the novel. The characters did not interest me nearly as much as I had hoped and I suspect this was a large part of my problem starting out with the novel. If the character of Borlu had been more engaging I might have had more willingness to engage with the alien aspects of this world. (This is something I hope the TV adaptation can accomplish, bringing a little more nuance and depth to Borlu’s character.)
Unseeing is a powerful theme of the novel, the ability to intentionally unsee the other city is marked as a conscious choice, Borlu sees and then unsees in a constant battle against Breaching. I found this to be a fascinating concept, especially after the conversation that took place in my seminar noting that unseeing, social divides, or things we find unpleasant is common place in our society. Giving this text an interesting spin, whether intentional or not.
To sum up my thoughts I think that the novel has an engaging concept, is well realised and executed but suffers from characters that at best are tropes of the police procedural or detective fiction genre. However The City in the City is well worth a read if you enjoy concept driven narratives and an engaging central plot. All things considered I would say the book is worth the time despite it’s flaws and I can only hope that the BBC adaptation will achieve the same feat.
Are you excited for the adaptation? Did you enjoy the book? Let me know in the comments below.