Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I don't judge books by their covers, but sometimes covers do say a lot about the book they contain. The cover of my edition of The City & The City is in washed out blue, with a stylized title and the skylines of two different Eastern European cityscapes—presumably, the modernized Ul Qoma, and its neighbour, Besźel. It's a very nice cover. Alone, it is aesthetically pleasing. Yet it also captures the atmosphere of the story with pinpoint accuracy. There's a washed out quality to The City & The City, a sense of drab stoicism imparted by centuries of maintaining Besźel and Ul Qoma's unique relationship. This makes it a perfect setting for a hardboiled crime novel, as well as another Miévillian story in which the city (two cities, here) are almost characters unto themselves.
(I'm going to reveal the exact nature of that "unique relationship" two paragraphs below, hence the spoiler warning on this review. I feel that this is essential in order to discuss properly the book, and I don't think that knowing the "secret" spoils the plot or even the enjoyment of the book.)
This only my second novel by China Miéville, and my second in two weeks (the first being Perdido Street Station). Already I'm gaining a great respect for his worldbuilding abilities. In particular, Miéville has a talent for understatement. In The City & The City, the reader teases out the nature of Besźel and Ul Qoma after a few chapters. We get hints from mentions of "unseeing," "unhearing," and, of course, "Breach." This was obviously intentional; otherwise, Miéville could have begun with, "Once upon a time, there were two cities…." Instead, he forces us to acclimatize and orientate ourselves, much like a tourist to Besźel or Ul Qoma. We're forced to pay attention. And because this is a mystery, that is a good thing!
As its title implies, however, this book is more about the two cities and their relationship (both political and physical) than the murder that forms its central plot. Besźel and Ul Qoma, taken separately, seem like typical Eastern European cities, one stagnating and the other in a state of renewal. Taken together, these cities are anything but typical. In places where the cities overlap (or "crosshatch"), inhabitants of Besźel must "unsee" people in Ul Qoma, and vice versa; they learn to do this by paying attention to how people walk, hold themselves, the style of clothing they wear, etc. All of these elaborate cultural conventions have evolved to maintain the homeostasis of the two cities. Puncturing this equilibrium, we learn, is the worst possible crime in both cities: it is breach. And the people who deal with it have no identity, no concrete existence other than their purpose; they are Breach.
What I found more interesting than the existence of uniquely Besź or Ul Qoman modes of dress and walking were the implications surrounding these customs. In a crosshatched area, you can just "decide" to be in one city or the other. Change the way you walk, change the city you're in—of course, then you are also in breach, but that isn't the point here. It's the fragility of this system. Why would people ever choose to live this way?
This seems like a natural question for us to ask. Let me rephrase it. Why would people ever choose to live in a city constantly in danger of flooding during a hurricane? Why would people ever choose to live in a city where they have to spend four hours a day stuck in a car going from home to work and back? To an outsider, those situations may seem just as bizarre as the superposition of Besźel and Ul Qoma does to us, yet people inhabit such cities. Why? Simple: it's home.
Miéville reinforces this point by contrasting the two cities. Borlú is Besź, so when he travels to Ul Qoma, he is out of his element. The cities share the same space, but they are very different from one another in character and composition—for Borlú, Besźel is most definitely "home" while Ul Qoma is not. It's precisely this sentiment, amplified a hundredfold and augmented with a sense of superiority, that gives hardcore nationalists like the Besź True Citizens and Qoma First their motivation. And on the other side, you have the unificationists of either city trying to merge the two together (which honestly seems like a bad idea to me, just from a physical infrastructure perspective).
Despite being so different, Besźel and Ul Qoma are both defined by their unique situation and by their oversight by the Breach. No other cities on Earth have an "alien power" watching over them, "protecting" them. Citizens learn as children to avoid breaching; as we soon discover, the murders of Mahalia Geary go to great lengths to avoid breaching while committing their crime. Breach is omnipresent, a constant undercurrent in thoughts and actions—it's amazing that most Besź and Ul Qomans don't have a siege mentality.
Borlú's a very interesting character and a good narrator. I am not so convinced he is a very good detective, but he gets the job done, and what he lacks in foresight he makes up for in guts. What begins as an admittedly vexing murder investigation quickly becomes an investigation into the structure of the cities themselves, into the nature of Breach and the possibility of a "third city," Orciny, existing "between" the other two. Borlú's not an action hero, but he's still tough and does what's necessary to deliver justice.
Can you read The City & The City as a straight crime novel, ignoring all this namby-pamby fantasy junk? Of course not. I focus so much on the relationship between these cities because it's integral to the story, and to the mystery—there would be very little mystery were it not for the fact that an Ul Qoman inhabitant winds up dead on Besź soil. Yet the mystery is just as integral to the book. It is the plot, the glue that creates the conflict and drives the story forward even as we learn about the two cities. Genre-wise, there is enough of a "crime novel" here that people who regard fantasy with a sceptical or hesitant eye need not fear being swallowed by a crowd of hungry LARPers.
The City & The City is—and I mean this without any denigration toward other types of fantasy novels—a very mature work of fantasy. It's probably more proper to label it "speculative fiction," if we're going to get into a label debate—I'm just calling it "fantasy" because we never do get a full explanation for why the cities are superimposed on each other. Should we get an explanation? You're certainly entitled to want one, but as it is, this book feels complete. It is a mystery set in a mysterious city and a mysterious city, but that mystery is not about the origins of the city and the city. The origins are extraneous, and attempting to add them would ruin the story's harmony. For The City & The City works precisely because it is balanced, because Miéville carefully controls the juxtaposition of the foreign and the familiar. The result is a murder wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a city and a city.