This is a page of notes towards a review-like thing of The City & The City which i may or may not ultimately write. Since i have slagged other people's reviews of it off, i really ought to put up.
Incidentally, i am writing the HTML by hand, and the number of character entities i am typing is astounding - Borlú, Miéville, Tlön …
A starting assumption here is that you have read the book. This page is verminous with spoilers.
All of these were found thanks to the Stakhanovite efforts of Torque Control.
I increasingly think that my central problem with the book is the nature of Breach. The surface story, which the residents of the cities tell each other, is that Breach is a supernatural power which enforces the rules. This is also the story illustrated by Borlú's eyewitness account of seeing Breach in action as a child - unless we are to take him as an unreliable reporter here, and i noticed nothing in the text which would suggest that - then Breach really does have the power to appear from nowhere and move in a ghostlike manner. Borlú's near-miss with Breach when grosstopically visiting his own flat also fits in with this, although more weakly. I seem to remember that there are other descriptions of Breach that fit this pattern, and not tied to a specific recollection of Borlú's, but of course these are told in his voice too. [TODO: go back and have a closer look at the text in all these cases - one is on pp76-78] However, when we see Breach from the inside, they seem to be an entirely human operation - they have amazing technical resources, and can lean heavily on their mystique and an authority relationship with local law enforcement, but ultimately they aren't at all magic. There are still references to Powers, some kind of supernatural backing to the Breach field office we see, but these remain firmly in machina, if you will. Which version is true? I read the book under the assumption that it was the former; up until Borlú enters the Breach, this is, i would say, what the text suggests, and that evidence just about sustained me in that belief beyond that point, although it had ebbed to almost nothing by the end. The alternative reading, which i think everyone else has made, is that Breach is just another bunch of cops. In that case, though, how do you explain Borlú's experiences? Ashil shows Borlú how to walk in a way that leaves you unseen in both cities, which provides a certain kind of ghostliness, but it doesn't seem enough to explain the earlier descriptions of Breach in action. Either interpretation leaves gaping holes in the story: if Breach is magic, why are they so weedy in person, and so ineffective at dealing with the staged insurrection? If they aren't magic, and Borlú's memory is indeed faulty, how have they managed to do all the things they've done over the course of the book and the preceding centuries? Is the point that they really have just worked by fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the rules?
It's never made clear whether the Precursor artifacts actually have weird physics or not. I liked that, and i'm happy not to make up my mind about it. If one had to, the sensible reading is that they don't, and this was just a rumour, ultimately exploited by Buric to extract hard currency from Western archaeopirates. These objects are presumably a nod to Borges's 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius', and the objects from Tlön disseminated over the world according to the plans of the Orbis Tertius. Indeed, there is a general echo of that story in the whole book. Marc C. Newton thinks so too.
It would have been so easy to resolve both the above points in a magical direction - yes, the Precursors had magical technology, and the Breach inherited it. The idea must have crossed Mié's mind, so the fact that he didn't take that road presumably tells us that this is not how he wants us to understand his world.
The name of Sear and Core is presumably a play on Orciny - they're roughly the same sounds jumbled about, right? With a bonus 's'. That felt clumsy. And if it isn't deliberate and i'm just pareidoling, then they're too close. This really bugged me inordinately.
My prime beef with the book is the way the plot trailed off it madness two-thirds of the way through. Up to the point where Borlú finds Yolanda, it's tight, suspensful, and it makes sense. It's believable. After that, it starts to get wobbly. Why is Borlú so keen to get Yolanda out of the country? I found his reasons rather unconvincing. Bringing Yolanda and Bowden to the border at the same time also seemed like a huge slip (even before we saw the consequences); why would you put both your eggs in one basket like that? After Borlú breaches, it goes downhill much more rapidly. The revelation of Breach was terrifically unconvincing, for the reasons i talk about above, but even if you immediately accept that they're just a detective Wizard of Oz, their treatment of Borlú - investigating him, but getting him involved and letting him out of the office - seems bizarre. Little things like the fact that their office has an exist onto a main road - okay, it's a dissenso (i'm back-forming a Besz singular there, correct me if i'm wrong), and the avatars move in a way which leaves them unseen, but still, that seems a little bit in-your-face. At least give them a secret underground tunnel network or something. Christ, even MI5 have that [TODO: find a description of this; i remember a guy opened a manhole cover in Aldgate and went down with a Brompton, and ended up unfeasible far west].