First review! I don’t know how to do these, but I feel obliged to post something after saying I would.
This is a weird book. Mild spoilers ahead.
The body of a young woman is found in the decaying city of Besźel and the case is taken on by Extreme Crime Squad Inspector Tyador Borlú. His investigation takes him across a complex border into the booming metropolis of Ul Qoma, a city that occupies the same physical space as Besźel. The concept takes a bit of explaining, but it’s brain-tingling once it clicks. The two contrasting and intricately overlapping urban landscapes exist in a complex scramble of ‘total’ and ‘alter’ areas and bits that ‘crosshatch’ or bleed into each other, these fragmented boundaries observed by locals through a hard-learned and deeply ingrained process of ‘unseeing’ and ‘unhearing’ things that leak through from the alternate city. The differences between the two are defined by architecture, technology, culture, dress, legally separated colour palettes and other subtleties and not-so-subtleties. It’s a fraught and impossible system, but not one that’s followed simply by choice: failure to respect the boundaries constitutes a ‘breach’, and such violations summon the shadowy and seemingly omnipotent organisation, known aptly as ‘Breach’, to deal with offenders. This ‘dealing’ seems to involve permanent disappearances.
Tyador’s investigation takes him through the legal crossing between Besźel and Ul Qoma, and what is already a highly unorthodox case begins to unravel as it becomes in entangled in the controversial mythology of ‘Orciny’, a third city, secret and dangerous, believed by some to exist in the gaps between the other two; people in Besźel unsensing its traces while thinking it to be Ul Qoma, and vice versa. You get the idea. Conspiracy theories, unquestioned authority, obscure forces controlling people without them being fully aware of it… The political aspect of the book feels authentic, with its frustrating bureaucracy, international bickering, pointless nationalism and the ragged, battered ranks of the unificationists or ‘unifs’, cowering in the shadows of the Breach. It all makes me feel like going on a dangerous urban adventure, joining a political movement and maybe getting a tattoo, although I’m not sure what the tattoo would depict.
I felt that aspects on the concept were over-explained at times; unnecessary reinforcement of the world-building that was perhaps to the detriment of other elements of the novel. Conversely, some bits weren’t explained enough, and I felt that the ending was a bit frantic and slippery, with the plotholes resolved in a slightly haphazard fashion that involved the introduction of new ideas and clarifications too late for my liking. The answers to some of the questions that had loomed throughout the narrative were not as satisfying or as profound as one might’ve hoped (perhaps appropriately?), and while elements of the conclusion were fascinating, I don’t feel that it did justice to the rest of the novel or the world that had been so carefully constructed in the first two thirds. It needs a sequel, perhaps.
There were quite a few strange or awkward sentences in the book and I wasn’t sure if the author was trying to represent the foreignness of their language through unusual bendings of English or if the editing just wasn’t entirely up to scratch. Sometimes it felt appropriately strange and other times it jarred and I had to reread sentences to clarify them. Despite these occasional syntax glitches, I enjoyed the writing and was convinced by the characterisation of the protagonists, and by the dialogue.
Overall, I felt that the novel was reasonably well handled despite its complexity, the concept convincingly inserted into an otherwise familiar rendering of the world as we know it. There’s a real, gritty, anxious feel that appealed to me and spurred me onward. It’s clearly a commentary about stuff and things, borders and politics, difference and sameness, but I didn’t feel like Miéville was trying to force any black-and-white agenda through his prose. His socialist leanings are evident but not overstated. Sometimes I felt as though I couldn’t quite put my finger on the point, as if it was always just out of reach, but mostly that didn’t feel like a problem. Part of the authenticity of the politics exists in the swathes of grey; neither this nor that, neither right nor wrong. He doesn’t tell me exactly what to think, and I appreciate that. He has created a dystopian world, but he hasn’t polarised it or left it completely devoid of hope. There’s the possibility of redemption, despite the fractures.
The verdict, in short: Imperfect, but interesting. Worth a read, particularly if you like gritty dystopian fiction and original concepts. I’ll be reading more of Miéville in the future.