Tyador Borlu’s latest case is a real doozy. When a young woman’s body turns up in a local skate park, Inspector Borlu of the Beszel police leaps into action trying to pin down the witness’s stories and the woman’s identity, like he would on any other murder. But his efforts become more complicated when the woman turns out to be a resident of Ul Qoma, Beszel’s neighbor.
Well… sort of. In Mieville’s preposterous high-concept premise, Beszel and Ul Qoma are not neighboring cities exactly, but two separate cities occupying the same physical space. Travel between the two is highly regulated and residents of each are trained not to look at or even notice residents of the other, subject to penalty of law.
If that sounds absurd on its face, get in line. Mieville starts off strong as The City and the City takes the form of a police procedural in a cracked alternate universe, but the nagging doubt that he can sustain such a high-wire act turns out to be well-founded. When the murdered woman turns out to have been a grad student interested in a long-discredited theory about the existence of a third city called Orciny, Mieville’s plot gets bogged down in trying to make sense of the nonsense politics and bureaucracy that such a preposterous notion would engender.
On top of the sheer unlikeliness of the story, the book also collapses under the weight of all the invented words and concepts Mieville introduces. It’s not long before the stream of ridiculous words blurs into gobbledygook and the reader is left hopelessly stranded and irredeemably bored. This is exacerbated by Mieville’s painfully bad dialogue, which seems to be due to Mieville trying to write English like his non-native speaker narrator.
Monstrously silly, badly written, and with a tacked on resolution to the central mystery, The City and the City is an inventive premise in search of a writer capable of sustaining it.