Review of “The City & The City”

I picked up TC & TC with a certain amount of trepidation. First of all, I don’t tend to read a book unless it’s had at least five years or so behind it. At this point, if people are still recommending it then the chances are it’ll be a good story rather than something that was simply well-marketed. However, recently, I’ve been using Twitter a lot and I thought I’d try out a few of the newer books that the book people on there were talking about. TC & TC was one such book.

Another reason for my trepidation was my previous experience will Miéville. I picked up Perdido Street Station one time and didn’t enjoy it. Looking beyond the menagerie of strange creatures and races, there wasn’t a enough of a genuinely different and interesting story buried beneath to keep my attention, and certainly not one to justify its length.

Yet I was pleasantly surprised by TC & TC. It felt like Mieville had grown up a bit. The writing appeared more controlled and the story more direct and engaging. The dialogue especially, while a touch clumsy at times, was well done; and the concept of the dual cities itself was very interesting. The problem was, due to the praise/hype this book has been getting, I spent more time assessing its flaws rather than enjoying the book.

The first thing that struck me was Miéville’s deliberate attempt not to explain the how both cities operated from the start. I appreciate he probably did this to keep the reader turning the pages, but as there was quite a lot of exposition at the beginning of the book and this intentional omission was stark and annoying. Either explain nothing to the reader and let them work out everything through context, or explain everything to paint a full picture, letting the story itself shine through. This picking and choosing of exposition was jarring and made the read occasionally frustrating when it needn’t be.

Another aspect I found disappointing was Miéville’s characters. As said, the dialogue was sound, but the characters speaking didn’t have much life to them. None of the secondary cast felt memorable; and Borlu himself, whose perspective this book is taken from, has no personality of his own. This lack of characterisation meant the events in the book had less impact. I didn’t particularly care what happened to any one, especially Borlu.

The last of my biggest gripes was the ending: it lacked punch. The explanation behind the murder on which the whole story was based felt tacked on. The book is basically builds up to this climax and I wanted it to blow me away, but sadly it didn’t and it felt half-hearted. It was a shame because it could of pushed the story from being decent to very good, and redeemed it from its other flaws.

Despite the things I’ve mentioned above, I did enjoy TC & TC for the most part. It’s not exceptional, but it held together nicely (admittedly it started getting quite dull around the half-way point, but it picked up again later), and felt generally well put together.

3 comments

  1. Interesting and deep enough review. I really like your idea of picking up the books who survived the marketing and hype phase. Clever!

    And I humbly agree about what you said: “The problem was, due to the praise/hype this book has been getting, I spent more of time assessing its flaws rather than enjoying the book.” This is something that’s happening to me too. Maybe my reviewer glasses are too heavy and preventing me to enjoy the book I’m reading by over-analyzing it.

  2. Interesting review.

    I’m also a reluctant Miévillean – having picked up very likely Perdido Street Station from the local Hammersmith library in 2003 while wandering the stacks, read a few pages, and put it back on the re-shelving trolley and didn’t look back. At the time, my taste wasn’t ready for his prose. Now, nearly eight years later, I decided for many of your same reasons, to have another go; but with The City and The City as I’m a great fan of noir/detective novels and city-based fantasy.

    I think it’s a standout book – even though I’m still not won over by Miéville’s singular prose. Others praise it to the cobalt scudded skies, but I find it a distraction rather than an asset to his storytelling. I’m hoping to see how I feel about Kraken, next time around.

    However, I have say I felt rather differently about The City and The City than you did. I liked the slow exposition of the nature of the two cities and especially of Breach. Also, I think that Miéville gets his detective Borlu spot on. He is if anything, almost too exactingly dour, isolated, and an empty shell (in the best sense of a strong sweeping characterization) outside of his work. It’s a subtle turn, but exactingly done. I thought China captured a Eastern European noir/crime procedural detective perfectly in his quiet protagonist.

    In a similar vein, Borlu’s opposite in Ul Qoma was a deft touch; a ever so slightly distorted mirror image of the inspector. A “what could have been” on the other side of the City and the City. Borlu confirms this, by musing on the very same concept.

    Overall, The City and The City an exceptional book but one I had to read quickly, almost as one might let an impressionist painting visually blur, in order to skim past the prose style which I found not to my taste and an interruption to what I otherwise thought, was an excellent work.

    E

  3. @Yagiz It’s the reason I couldn’t be a proper book reviewer. I’ll end up tearing books apart and just sounding like a grouch. As long as Geek Syndicate are happy for me to post, I’ll probably put reviews up of books I’ve read recently and not releases. Most of my TBR pile is full of older books, and I may post reviews as I read them.

    @E M Edwards I’d be interested to see what you think of “Kraken”. Personally, I think it’s not for me, but as Mieville (I don’t know how to do the accent thing) is getting so much praise, it’s got my attention. Plus, the covers I’ve seen of it are fantastic and as much as it annoys me, a good cover does draw to me certain books!

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