Let's get it out of the way up front: in a violent, unexpected break from his past work, there are no monsters in China Miéville's new novel.
Not even one.
The City & The City is a police procedural set (roughly) in our present day. Though it takes place in two fictional city-states, we're never invited to understand the book as a piece of alternate history; rather, the Central European sister-metropolises Besźel and Ul Qoma are the sort of tiny states about which a Westerner might well have managed lifelong ignorance. I hesitate to spoil the central conceit—
The chief sense in which the novel is not a departure for Miéville is relatively obvious: here, as always, milieu is king. In this regard, The City & The City is perhaps his strongest work yet: real-world constraints do not allow him to substitute world-building for building a sense of place. Though the flavors of Besźel and Ul Qoma are informed by certain generalities of their larger European context, the cities never feel like jury-rigged composites or stand-ins for other countries. The characters themselves push back against reductive analogy:
"I was young. I was at a conference. 'Policing Split Cities.' They had sessions on Budapest and Jerusalem and Berlin, and Besźel and Ul Qoma."
"I know, I know. That's what we said at the time. Totally missing the point" (74).
The story that unfolds here is a fairly traditional murder mystery. The Besźel policzai find the body of a young foreign woman in a run-down skate park. In due course, Inspector Tyador Borlú's earnest but routine investigation begins to suggest that someone has broken the law which precedes all laws in Besźel and Ul Qoma—
The publisher advances Chuck Palahniuk and Dashiell Hammett as touchstones for the book, but those comparisons don't quite resonate—
Miéville never plays his conceit for laughs, but absurdities arise from it. Borlú and his colleagues make dry, weary jokes as often as one would expect from human beings, without ever lapsing into machismo or noir cliché. Similarly, the prose is lovely but does not swagger. Miéville retains his love for puns and neologisms: a black-and-blue Besź police car is a "bruise." The Ul Qoman equivalent of a Besź city block is its "topolganger." Relative to his past work, the language is crisp and declarative, though now and then something in the rhythm or word order of a sentence forced me to read it twice. Take this passage:
She had not even had a photograph on that earlier expedition. That early it had been aboveboard contacts: it had been liquor-store clerks; the priests of squat local churches, some the last of the worker-priests, brave old men tattooed with the sickle-and-rood on their biceps and forearms, on the shelves behind them Besź translations of Gutiérrez, Rauschenbusch, Canaan Banana. It has been stoop-sitters. All Corwi had been able to do was ask what they could tell her about events in Pocost Village. They had heard about the murder but knew nothing (18).
Taken alone, several of these clauses are rather ugly; read all at once, there is a cumulative poetry to the passage. While there are phrases of plain-and-simple awkwardness in the book, the accumulation of prosal idiosyncrasies begins to suggest subtle, distinctive cadences to Besź and its Ul Qoman counterpart, Illitan. If that effect is intended (it may be merely a symptom of Miéville's style), it is appreciably nuanced, suggesting non-Anglophone rhythms without exoticizing.
Also appreciably nuanced: the novel's politics. The City & The City speaks to Miéville's academic interest in international law much more directly than his past works; I'd love to see an in-depth essay reading the novel in light of Between Equal Rights. In spite of the real-world setting, the political subject matter, and back cover reference to 1984, the book isn't didactic in the least. Right-wingers will not read and dismiss it as a left-wing screed. It seems to me that the author is more interested in prodding the deep structures of law than excoriating his fictional rightists, leftists, or governors. There are systemic terrors in Besźel and Ul Qoma, without question, but this isn't a dystopian novel; the two cities aren't nightmare states, but respectfully imagined places in which the variform forces of national difference articulate themselves in unfamiliar, mind-bending ways.
A vocal minority of Miéville's current fanbase will react to his new offering with something less than enthusiasm. By and large, The City & The City won't tax or even tap your internal SFX budget, and though it certainly qualifies as speculative fiction—
And when those newcomers pick up his back catalog, perhaps they'll fall in love with the monsters.