Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad find the body of a young woman in a rundown neighbourhood. No-one knows who she is, and the inquiry is going nowhere. Then Borlu gets a tip-off by phone from a mysterious caller in Beszel's parallel city-state Ul Qoma: the investigation has just gone international.
China Miéville's beautiful writing illuminates the dank, decayed, vaguely Slavic Beszel, and the brittle, flashy, nationalist Ul Qoma. Characters on both sides of the divide are richly drawn: real people with real relationships, personalities and career objectives. The novel rapidly turns into an unputdownable page turner. What is really going on?
At the heart of this novel is the weird relationship between Beszel and Ul Qoma. To say any more would be to spoil the impact of the story, but Miéville has come up with the strangest new idea I have encountered for a long while: this is social-science fiction, the personal and political implications of the central concept driving the intricate plot.
Draped around the central, startling idea is a classic detective story, albeit with no explicit sex, no more than a few shootings and a certain amount of low-level police brutality. The dynamics are those of the cities, with Borlu the central character who in the end resolves the mysteries and is thereby propelled finally to a new reality.
I thought Borlu was surprisingly good at coming up with new lines of inquiry on little evidence, ideas which seemed – unfeasibly - to always pan out. And he seems curiously asexual, not even flirting with his feisty assistant Lizbyet Corwi, although she seems quite interested in him. Perhaps the author intends Borlu to be totally mission-focused but it seems to detract from a fully rounded personality.
There are merely quibbles. ‘The City and the City is by far the best, most awe-inspiring book I have read this year and if it also ends up on required reading lists for ethnomethodology courses covering the social construction of reality, I wouldn't be surprised at all.