China Mieville is one of those authors I read without knowing anything about the book. I don’t read the book jacket, I don’t read reviews – I just read. With this one, though, a little bit of advance knowledge might have been good. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. Once I did, though, it hums along pretty quickly. It’s much less dense than other China books I’ve read.
Borlu is a detective in the split city of Beszel. Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space, but aren’t allowed to acknowledge each other. Children are trained early on to unsee/unhear/unsmell everything from the other city, and tourists go through rigorous training before being granted a visa. Architectural differences in buildings and hair, wardrobe, and posture changes in residents give subtle cues as to which city they’re in, letting others know if they’re allowed to be “seen” or not. For example, Borlu lives next to train tracks, but he can’t complain about the noise because the trains are in Ul Qoma, therefore should not exist for him. If a person breaks those boundaries, either on purpose or by accident, they are in breach and the mysterious Breach department shows up to handle it.
When Borlu is called in to investigate a dead body found in a skate park, he’s stumped when he can’t identify the victim. A highly illegal phone call from Ul Qoma tips him off that he can’t find her because she’s not from Beszel, meaning the whole crime AND investigation are breach, and about to blow up in his face. His innate cop curiosity keeps him hunting for clues, knowing that any minute Breach is going to take his case away from him.
This being China Mieville, it can’t just be a straightforward murder mystery. It turns out the victim was a student, investigating the possibility of a secret, third city, who has a hand in running the whole shebang, and which Breach is desperate to disprove. Does her murder prove its existence either way? It becomes dangerous to be connected to the investigation, and Borlu finds himself in trouble with two city governments as well as Breach.
It’s basically a murder mystery in a very interesting setting. I would’ve liked a little more background (WHY are these cities on top of each other, but separate?), but since the whole story is first person, we only know what Borlu knows. It’s a different style for China, and I liked seeing him stretch his writing muscles. Overall, though, I prefer his Bas Lag stuff.