The City & The City is an odd book to try and describe. A detective story with a sci-fi feel, although it’s not really sci-fi, it introduces us to the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma which sit side-by-side and, in some parts, overlap. Those overlapped boundaries are ‘crosshatched’, belonging to both cities at the same time, with the citizens of each trained to ‘unsee’ the buildings, vehicles and people of the neighbouring city. Seeing anything in the neighbouring city, or going so far as to cross into it from your own, are dealt with by Breach – a powerful entity that is invoked by the Oversight Committee to deal with those particular crimes.
When Inspector Tyador Borlu’s latest case involves a dead girl – an American student murdered in Ul Qoma and dumped in Beszel, it seems to everyone to be a straightforward case of Breach. But the Oversight Committee, trying to score political points, decide that it’s down to Borlu to solve. Investigating the academics and students who knew her, plus the unificationists and nationalists of both cities that she had managed to piss off in her short life, Borlu is not only trying to catch her killer but to avoid Breaching himself, from which there is no return.
It took me a little while to get my head around how the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma were situated – at first I was sure that they shared exactly the same space, but in different, parallel realities, but was soon disabused of that notion as the story progressed through the illustrations of the incidents and accidents that constituted breach, and the inner narrative of Borlu as he negotiated each city, unseeing everything from its neighbour. Once I’d grasped it, I really enjoyed the concept of unseeing, which to me gave us the strongest parts of the book.
I felt that the murder case aspect was the least interesting part, feeling rather formulaic, although it was indeed lifted by the ways in which the perpetrator and the detective on their trail negotiated their ways through the cities.
In all, this was a decent detective story elevated by the excellently realised world in which it was set.