The City and the City is a book that, to be sure, needs quite a lot of patience to keep on reading. The premise might seem confusing at times and it does require sheer endurance to read through the first 70 pages. Past that point, you find an utterly fantastic novel.
At first, the novel starts like typical detective fiction. The plot is engaging, but on the whole it seems like a pretext to write about the surroundings in which it happens. In fact, the murder mystery almost completely fades to the background as you get more and more absorbed in The City and the City. The true protagonists of this novel are the eastern European city-states of Beszél and Ul Qoma.
Both places share a common history, and there is evidence that they were once a single city until they were split by an unexplained event called "Cleavage" centuries before the start of the story. Now, the cities of Beszél and of Ul Qoma exist overlapped in the same physical space. People inhabiting one nation are conditioned to ignore – to "unsee" and to "unsense" – the citizens of the other, even if there are events are happening inches away from them. They must at all times be wary of the "crosshatched" areas where both cities merge geographically and which are perilous. Acknowledging the people or buildings from the other city is the worst violation possible, called a "Breach," and is punishable by a sinister and omniscient Orwellian law enforcement agency that remains independent from either city.
The story follows a disgruntled detective from Beszél investigating the murder of a young woman. What makes this more than a routine murder investigation is that the woman, a foreign exchange student, most likely has committed Breach. This leads the detective to try and retrace the steps of a woman who interacted with both worlds, in the process challenging his own conditioned behaviour.
China Miéville has an incredible mind, with a vast and creative imagination and a capacity for detailed world building. He understands the connection between a people’s sense of identity (their national identity) and the place where they live. He has cleaved a country in half and observed it as the citizens compete for the same reality and space.
At the time of the novel, the languages of each city have become distinct, their customs altered and even their fashions different. Many other idiosyncrasies distinguish them, from their odd and puzzling conventions to their strange habits. They even have distinct relations to other countries in the world and interact with those to varying degrees. Each country in itself is an amalgam of the seemingly meaningless beliefs and traditions that define a nation and its particular identity. But excluding certain small factions where their feelings can escalate to xenophobic nationalism, they don’t seem to have a problem with one another, no deep-seated hate or prejudice. They seem to live in relative peace when undisturbed by the Breach and the temptation to watch the other side.
The City and The City is the weirdest pulp science fiction story I’ve ever read. Miéville regularly mixes genres, and this novel is a noir crime thriller set in fantastical surroundings, with elements of existentialism and strangeness. It might not be the best choice for hard sci-fi fans, but for those readers inclined towards Lovecraft, plough through those difficult initial pages and immerse yourself in the plot that connects these two cities.