I could not see the street or much of the estate. We were enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us. This open ground between the buildings had once been sculpted. It pitched like a golf course -- a child’s mimicking of geography. Maybe they had been going to wood it and put in a pond. There was a copse but the saplings were dead. The grass was weedy, threaded with paths footwalked between rubbish, rutted by wheel tracks. There were police at various tasks."
After the jump, my review.
In the opening scene, the body of a young woman is found in a park in a fictional east European city, Beszel. The story is narrated by the detective, Inspector Tyador Borlú, who has been assigned to the case, who has to identify her, learn who could want her dead, then track down her killer. That takes him to Beszel's sister city, Ul Qoma. Beszel and Ul Qoma aren't just sister cities, they are cities with overlapping geography unlike any in the real world, complete with an all-powerful authority that polices the overlap. These two cities share a history and a geography and a common mystery, and assume a role that rivals Borlú's as the main character of the novel.
The dead woman is a foreign student, an archaeologist with connections to various political fringe groups. She had been investigating yet a third city, the legendary Orciny, rumored to have existed in the interstices between Beszel and Ul Qoma. Borlú is an experienced, hard-boiled detective, but even he has trouble navigating all the intrigues as his investigation into the murder drills down ever deeper into the mystery between the city and the city.
What starts as a standard police procedural relentlessly reveals itself to be a whodunnit wrapped around a what-is-it. It can be read as a straightforward detective story, at which it succeeds, or it can read as science fantasy with the much deeper mystery of the two cities, at which it also succeeds. Together, the novel is greater than the sum of its parts. Wholly fantastical, wholly believable, wholly engrossing from start to finish.