One, whoever talked me into reading it was a crazy person. They were all: "It's SUPER EXPERIMENTAL LANGUAGE! It's just like Moonwise, only more SF!"
I don't remember who that was, but that is not an accurate description of PSS. At all. It's got some pretty words, sure--most in italicized sections so you know the pretty words are coming, or stuck in the middle of fighty action paragraphs so my brain wrenches hilariously--but nineweaving , China ain't. It's not that I'm dissing Mieville here--I'm gonna get to some slavish praise in a minute. They're just not after the same fish. I don't even think they're in the same ocean. So I, unfortunately, resented this book for not being the SF Moonwise I was told it would be.
Be careful with your recommendations, kids!
After awhile, I got over that a little and could admit it was pretty compelling, if overly interested in "effluvia," (I made jokes about poop-punk for weeks, because it's ridiculous how much feces are in that book, even the magical evil substance is actually alien feces) and fascinating, even if I hate what he does to his sole female character with substantial screentime. It's nice for a girl to become an actual prop because she didn't listen to her boyfriend. Damsel in distress stories just aren't my thing.
So I didn't read any more Mieville until Un Lun Dun, which I hated. In this case, I'm not actually saying it was a bad book, just that you could hardly write a book with more things that irritate me in it. Endless, endless puns. The McGuffin itself being one of the worst puns I can imagine. Do British authors get sent away to pun camp when they're small? Good grief. Before this book I didn't know single words could make me see red. Schwazzy and Klinneract? Made me want to bite the book for its behavior. Anyway. Preachy political stuff, also not my kink. I was raised by a political science professor. Do not want. I know a lot of people loved this book, but it was just so violently Not for Me.
However, I DUG the UnGun. So awesome.
What I'm saying is, my relationship with Mieville's oeuvre was at best problematic.
So now we come around to The City & The City, which I really wanted to read because that title is fantastic, and I am a cheap floozy capable of being won over by shiny at any time, but could not afford to buy for obvious reasons. But while in New York for the NYRSF reading a few weeks ago, regyt and novalis gave me their spare ARC of it, and I ate it up in two days.
Holy crap, you guys.
The premise of this book is so fucking brilliant I wanted to do a slow clap in my kitchen. It's just...hats-off, trophy-earning, bow-down awesome. It works both as a speculative worldbuilding Cool Thing and as a profound political metaphor--and I actually don't think he took it far enough as a political metaphor, which given Mieville's interest in political fiction, is pretty surprising. I'm not going to spoil it here because the premise is revealed over about six chapters, and figuring out what it is is part of the pleasure of the book.
The setting is vaguely eastern European, as it would be given the premise, and so recalls the magical realism of that region without calling out any one country. the funny thing is, this is a great example of a book that is Not for Me. I could not care less about police procedurals, I burned out on mysteries reading Miss Christie and Tony Hillerman out of my mom's closet when I was a kid. If there's a body in chapter one I don't usually read it (related to my new movie trailer rule: if a motorcycle slides under a truck/car, I'm not going). This book is billed as one where Mieville lets go of his pretty words. I hate noir. There is nothing here for me.
And I was riveted.
The premise is so strong, in fact, that I still love this book despite being disappointed by the identity of the killer, which felt random and unmotivated and tacked on (a problem with a whole lot of detective fiction), irritated at the lack of living women in the world, not particularly caring about any of the characters, as most of them don't get significant backstories or emotional motivations beyond catching the killers, wishing that he would spin out the political metaphor a little more than the murder mystery, and being bitterly betrayed by one of my least favorite tropes in speculative fiction.
Where they go: is this fantastic thing real or not real through the whole book and then it's not real but it would have been a whole lot better if it was real and if it's not real why did I care for 500 pages? Also this particular real/not real thing is SO AWESOME and VERY PLAUSIBLE given the realities of the world and it SHOULD HAVE BEEN REAL DAMMIT. I want to write the book where it's real. It hurt me physically that it wasn't. That it wasn't cut all the tension and excitement from the end for me.
But the premise is so good and so beautiful and so true that I almost forgive all of that. Not enough to not comment on it, but enough to recommend the book to others.
You guys. Remember at Readercon three years ago when I was on that panel about politics in fantasy and the guy in the audience asked that great question right at the end and no one had an answer because the panel was over? This question:
The real question is not: how can we show different political systems in speculative fiction. It's: what kind of political systems require speculative fiction to explicate them?
This book is the beginning of an answer.