Oh my. Where to begin?
I'm still not quite sure how I feel about this book. What attracted me to it in the first place was the premise: two cities in one place, but what separates them? It is largely because the answer to that question is so unclear that my response to this book is somewhat muddled. The first thing that needs to be said is that it took me an exceptionally long time to "get in" to the book. Miéville doesn't even bother with explanations for his extremely complicated creation, or any type of world-building, for that matter. Readerly knowledge of Ul Qoma and Besźel trickles in slowly and never solidifies. Weirdly, this wouldn't be a problem if the book wasn't marked as science fiction/fantasy. If you chose to pretend that nothing fantastic at all were occurring in the premise, and instead treat it as some crazy descendant of Orwell's 1984, you could do so. The pieces are there. But it IS science fiction, fantasy, speculative, etc., and that carries certain expectations.
Miéville utilizes extremely economic language and sparse plotting, which is the mark of an intelligent writer, but more often than not, I think this actually works to The City & the City's detriment. Sci-Fi and fantasy need to be grounded in some sort of reality, yet Miéville provides us with virtually no context, no background for these two cities. How did this type of separation evolve? What are the specifics? This is important stuff when your entire novel is based on the premises that two cities can exist in the same space. But what does that really mean, "in the same place"? Does it mean that there are two entirely separate cities with separate buildings and histories and they just kind of metaphysically overlap one another in alternate universes? Or are Ul Qoma and Besźel literally one city, with the same buildings and everything, and the only thing keeping them apart is policy. At times you could certainly be convinced that all this "unseeing" business is entirely psychological, and at other times that denizens of the "other city" must be appearing as shadows or ghosts, but then something in the narrative pops in and you start to question: just what does this world look like?
Especially in terms of the metaphor Miéville is trying to construct, I think that a concrete description of this world's logistics is necessary and yet Mieville never clarifies, and it becomes a growing problem throughout the novel (admittedly, the central metaphor is very powerful, especially at the end of the novel, even despite the problematic nature of the dual-city concept). But even as Miéville's hero, Tyador Borlu, in the novel's most powerful moment, learns that ultimately, the two cities are only separated by the continued participation of the people who live in them, the moment is kind of cheapened because I still find myself asking: why were they separated in the first place?
The other thing that bothered me about this book is something that might just be chalked up to personal taste. For me, there's a missing element in Miéville's writing. He is very good with words and his sense of how to properly use genre fiction to tell a powerful story is very much intact, but I'm missing the human element. The best sci-fi doesn't just engage readers intellectually and metaphorically, but through emotion as well. It does this by allowing us to identify with characters and situations, and it is exactly that identifying character that this novel is missing. Borlu, to me, was nothing more than an avatar for metaphorical action and plot movement. That is a valid choice for storytelling, but it's not one that engages me beyond a surface level.
If not for the genre elements, this book would be in danger of drowning in the quagmire of its own intellectual meanderings. Sometimes authors with such literary aims are so busy trying to impress or to outdo to avoid the stigma of being common or predictable, that they lose sight of what's important in a story. Mieville saves himself this burden by actively embracing not one, but two genres (the other being detective/crime fiction) which are traditionally snubbed by "intellectual" readers. He should be applauded for this. I just wish that I cared about the end result.
Maybe on a second reading some of this would become clearer, but for now: three stars.