The City & The City Review

The City and The City
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The City & The City ReviewI have awarded five stars to lesser books in the past, but now the bar has been raised; I know what a five-star novel is really like after reading _The City & The City_.
It's a detective novel written in the first-person; the narrator is Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad. The writing style is relatively spare, reminescent of Dashiell Hammett. The narrator constrains himself strictly to observable phenomena and tells us nothing of characters' inner thoughts or emotional states, which makes the action seem very immediate and the narration very stark. Police procedures are presented believably but without too much detail. The case itself is not terribly elaborate. It starts with a murder, but about two-thirds of the way through I felt that the murder was no longer the focus. Inspector Borlu's investigation leads to fringe political groups, an archaeological site, a foreign country, and to somewhere else entirely. The setting of the novel is what makes the story work. There wouldn't be a story if it wasn't set in Beszel and Ul Qoma. It's a totally original concept, like nothing I have ever read before.
Beszel is a gloomy, decaying city which seems to be located somewhere in Eastern Europe. Ul Qoma is a bright, bustling city that seems either Arabic or Turkish. The relationship between the two cities is the central theme of the book. I can't tell you much about it without spoiling the beautiful unfolding of the novel. Of course Inspector Borlu takes everything for granted because he lives there; it's all familiar to him .. so instead of explaining things as one would to a foreign visitor, he lets details emerge through descriptions of sights and events, and the reader slowly pieces together details of the setting. One's understanding of the situation gets deeper as the novel progresses, and even though it is completely absurd, I found myself easily suspending my disbelief and becoming totally absorbed in the story. This impossible setting is PERFECTLY executed so as to seem plausible. Beszel and Ul Qoma deserve to be included in the Atlas of Fictional Places, they are so well constructed. Even the languages (as reflected in names of people and places and a few idiomatic sayings) consistently support the mood and "flavor" of the two cities.
The two cities may be a clever metaphor for the Situation of Man, but the book's highbrow literary qualities will not get in the way of its pure entertainment value. The best fiction I have read so far this year.The City & The City Overview

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