China Miéville

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China Miéville – The Scar

Overall well written, although less interesting conceptually than the other books I’ve read by the author before (The City and the City comes to mind). Neat story, interesting plot, okay characters. The only complaint is that the main characters felt a bit passive in the story and experienced it more than taking active part in it. Still very good. He’s good at making the very bizarre feel quite natural. Four snails.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan

This is the follow-up to Fooled by Randomness, a book I enjoyed immensely. This one was interesting too, but much less so that the first book. The author presents interesting ideas in an entertaining way, but I’m not really a big fan of his style and he comes across as somewhat opinionated at times. I also feel that this book could have been shorter. Three snails.

China Miéville – Perdido Street Station

This book actually takes place before The Scar, but they aren’t dependent on each other at all, and I found no problems reading them in this order. This book has better characters, a more interesting setting and better language than The Scar, but the plot feels weaker. Perhaps the book is also a little bit too long, but I would say it’s still better than The Scar, but not enough to earn five snails. Thus, four snails.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Antifragile

This book could have been about half as long without losing much. Again, the author has some interesting ideas, but in this book, he becomes less and less convincing and starts ranting more and more. I found parts of this book brilliant, but others were either boring or simply not convincing enough. Read Fooled by Randomness instead. Two snails.

China Miéville – Iron Council

Sadly, this novel combines the bad aspects of the two previous novels (see above). Despite its length, I never got to know the main characters and didn’t really care about them at all at any point throughout the story. The sub-plots feel detached from the main plot, and while the author managed to tie together disparate threads in the two earlier novels, he fails to do so here. I hoped for something on par with either of the two previous novels, but Iron Council falls short. Two snails.

Richard Dawkins – The Greatest Show on Earth

It feels strange to me that books defending evolution and science in general should be needed, and I’m always baffled by polls showing how many people believe the world was created 4000 years ago (or whatever). I live an insulated life. I don’t think the people who should read this book will read it, though. I found the book moderately interesting with some interesting concepts and theories I weren’t previously aware of, all presented in a logical and consistent way. My grade here doesn’t mean the book isn’t good, it just means I feel I don’t really belong to the target audience. Three snails.

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Title: The City & the City
Author: China Miéville
Year: 2009

I’ve been tempted to read China Miéville many times before, but when I learnt about The City & the City and had the opportunity to borrow it from a friend, i knew that I had no choice but to read it instantly. Why? Because the idea upon which the novel is based is one of the best ideas I’ve ever encountered. I knew I would like this novel even before I opened it, even though I could only hope that the author was competent enough to use such a cool idea and create a good novel as well. He was and he did, far beyond my expectations.

So, what is this idea I keep going on about? The novel is set in a world which seems to be the same as the one we inhabit, but with a significant addition of a city and a city, called Beszel and Ul Qoma respectively. These cities, although geographically coexisting, are two different countries, two different city-states. Citizens in Beszel aren’t allowed to notice what’s going on in Ul Qoma, even though they might share certain streets; the inhabitants of Ul Quoma must carefully “unhear” anything that’s being said on the other side of the border, even though it might be within arm’s reach. The divide is upheld by rigorous social taboos, rules and regulations, internalised by the citizens since they were kids, enabling them to ignore what’s might be happening so close, but is still in another country. There is also the omnipotent Breach, which intervenes whenever illegal interaction occurs between the two cities. Only in the centre of the city can people pass legally over an international border, through customs and reach the other city.

The story starts with body being found in Beszel, and detective Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad starts an investigation. But the murdered woman, a foreign student studying in Ul Qoma, was last seen in that city, which makes Borlú think that this is a case for Breach. However, his request to hand it over to the mysterious and powerful organisation is denied: No breach has occurred, the body was legally transported from Ul Quoma to Beszel, it’s a case for the police, a case for Borlú and his harsh sidekick Corwi. But why would somebody go to such extremes to get rid of a student? Why steal a van and smuggle the body between the cities? The answer is out there for Borlú to find, but in which city?

What is so astonishing about this novel is perhaps not the idea itself, but the fact that China Miéville manages to portray life in the two cities as something quite ordinary and normal. The cities are bizarre, but after only a few chapters, they feel natural and the reader is already in the mindset of the main character. I already said I thought the idea is brilliant, but the author exploits it to its absolute potential and makes far more of it than I thought possible.

In addition to this, the story itself is thrilling, entertaining and fascinating, all at once. Reading the book, I had a very hard time putting it down; I wanted to see what happened in the next chapter and what new aspects of the two cities might emerge. The story is told with a language which probably isn’t beautiful, but yet masterfully used to achieve a certain effect: credibility. In addition, this books is exactly as long as it needs to be, there is no excess and nothing lacks.

To put it very briefly, this novel is perfect. Five snails without even the slightest glimmer of doubt. The City & the City is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Read it now!

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