The explorer Marco Polo has a long conversation with the emperor Kublai Khan about his various travels and all the cities he's been to, either literally or metaphorically. The all-conquering emperor Kublai Khan listens to the Venetian traveller Marco Polo recount his tales of many cities, all different in their own ways but with common themes running through each one. He is often disbelieving but has no choice but to take his word for it because he has tried and failed to understand the workings of any city he has conquered, and how to stop them going to ruin.
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Marco Polo does provide Kublai Khan with physical evidence of his travels, but it is the vivid way in which he describes each city that eventually makes Khan believe. When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city however every chapter in this book describes a different city anew, so it would be virtually impossible to describe every one without narrating the whole story. A few stand out in their strangeness, such as the ever-changing city of Eutropia, in which people change their role within the city at regular intervals so things never remain the same, and the city of Octavia, which is suspended on a spider-web between two precipices and everything is very physically precarious and hangs by a thread, literally.
There are frequent philosophical musings which emerge here and there, such as when Khan learns of the importance of a city's structure to make it whole. However, it soon becomes obvious that Marco Polo is describing a facet of the city of Venice in each tale of a city, and indeed certain common themes appear in most of the cities, such as the canals, the ancient architecture and the thriving communal lifestyle.
Marco Polo continues to describe more cities, each becoming stranger than the last one, Kublai Khan grows determined to find such a city, and in his mind begins to build a model city from scratch, made up of the various parts of each other city, and he eventually produces an atlas of cities which, it is not entirely clear, were drawn from knowledge or from description. Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan that there is only a specific way to gain access to each city, and it is not always via the immediately obvious way.
Best part of story, including ending:
It was so evocative of cities that sound too strange and fantastical to exist in real life.
Best scene in story:
A philosophical moment when Marco Polo highlights to Kublai Khan the importance of the small details of a thing, namely every individual stone in a bridge - "But which is the stone that supports the bridge?". Marco Polo states that it is the shape that they all form together which results in the final outcome.
Opinion about the main character:
There is little background explanation about either Marco Polo or Kublai Khan in the book although there would be more on them in a more factual source.