When I was a kid, if I so much as cracked the cover of a novel I’d generally force myself through the intervening pages no matter how much it might hurt me to do so. Since then I’m much less driven. If a book can’t grab me within the first 30 pages I’ll usually put it down for good.
That’s why I was shocked to realize that I was about to close the cover on The City & The City 70 pages in.
First off, it’s China Miéville. Not only have I enjoyed almost everything he’s ever written, I’ve gotten used to the fact that it often takes a while for his books to get going. It’s been a few years since I’ve read The Iron Council, but as I remember it, there was a good long boring bit before the mutant hell-train showed up, and everything got great.
And that’s exactly where I almost put the book down. You get some tantalizing glimpses of the (ultimately amazing) central conceit of the book early on, but it isn’t until around page 80 that you really start to “get” what’s happening, and realize that it’s something truly awesome.
I get why he does it. There’s an impact to subjecting the reader to a street level view of this strange world before lifting the veil. But it’s also as frustrating as hell, especially since the main character is a bit of the “by the numbers” guy. He’s cookie-cutter noir hero who spends the first chunk of the book looking forward to getting off the case.
But once the blinders are off, things get real good real fast. The plot remains is a fairly straight ahead political pot-boiler, with an ending that (at least in my case) became pretty apparent fairly early on, but the setting is so interesting that you want to keep reading about it just to get your questions answered. And the book does manage to answer most of them. I always find it comforting as a reader to be in the hands of someone who can stay a step ahead of me.
There’s no doubt that Miéville is a master world builder. His stories about New Crozubon quickly grew from describing a city, to encompassing a world. His prose often sings, or at the very worst at least hums along nicely, even if the characters come off as a little cookie cutter compared to some of the nuance he’s shown in the past.
But The City & The City is literally an urban fantasy in the way that most book that call themselves that aren’t. It’s a book about a city, and the consensual self-deception that is part of the cost of living in any metropolis. It’s also the story of a place that could only really exist between the pages of a book.
It’s well worth reading. Just make sure you promise yourself you’ll get to page 80 first.