2007's Un Lun Dun marked China Mieville's first foray into the Young Adult market. Whilst this might suggest a distinct change of pace from his previous, heavier works (and Mieville's toning down of his potentially prohibitive lexicon is certainly testament to this), Un Lun Dun is nevertheless a rich, thematic tale that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, suitable for young and old alike.
The story revolves around the actions of two twelve-year-old girls, Zanna and Deeba: a pair of bona fide London girls, inquisitive and streetwise and well attuned to their local environment. Which means that, when certain oddities start to manifest themselves, they're quick to notice and even quicker to investigate. The appearance of an apparently sentient cloud lacking in good intentions, as well as the discovery of a particularly skittish umbrella, eventually leads to their discovery of UnLondon, an alternate, and altogether much stranger, version of London.
UnLondon, as they quickly discover, is a phantasmagorical place, inhabited by dustbins fluent in martial arts (the binja!), discarded umbrellas, eccentric tailors constructed of the very tools of their trade, and countless other bizarre fauna. As the story develops it becomes clear that UnLondon is London's perverse shadow, a by-product of London's dispossessed cast-offs that have 'fallen through the cracks' and been given new life.
Despite the jumbling detritus that makes up UnLondon, the arrival of two very human newcomers doesn't go unnoticed, and they are sent - in a roundabout way - to see the Propheseers. There they learn that UnLondon is a city in peril, threatened by the increasingly menacing Smog, a destructive and devouring force that endangers both versions of London. And, with the girls' arrival, it is clear that a prophesy to rid the Smog once and for all is suddenly under way...
Un Lun Dun is a book that is both traditional and subversive to the fantasy genre. In reading the synopsis it is impossible not to draw parallels with Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, and Mieville also offers a strong tip of the hat to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The notion of a protagonist descending into a SubCity/parallel world is not new, neither is the plot dynamic of prophesy. Indeed, they have long been a staple diet of the fantasy genre, and in following such a well-trodden path I feared for the freshness and appeal of Un Lun Dun. But, through his astounding imagination and his knowledge and affinity to the genre, Mieville has managed to pay his respects to those who went before him by producing a work that is reminiscent but not derivative.
An example of this is his use of the notion of prophecy, a tired hallmark of fantasy novels that offers a dissociative sense of inevitability to any story. In Un Lun Dun it is suggested that Zanna, the most striking and opinionated of the two girls, is the Chosen One (or, rather, the 'Shwazzy') whose foretold purpose is to smite the Smog and rid the city of its pestilence. Mieville, though, actively denounces the lazy stereotype of prophecising by having Zanna defeated in her early confrontation with the Smog and sent home packing. The task then falls to the more diminuitive and outwardly less heroic Deeba to complete. Furthermore, the Book of Prophecy (a living entity) is a confused muddle of a character, never quite sure of what is and what isn't set in stone.
Despite this being a Young Adult read, Un Lun Dun does not shy away from theme. The Smog, an antagonist born out of the growing need for environmental awareness, is an obvious example, but the book also impresses upon readers such positive notions as the importance of questioning authority and the power of self-confidence and self-determination.
At 500-odd pages, Un Lun Dun isn't a quick read (although it is interspersed with wonderful, whimsical drawings of Mieville's characters - done by the author himself). The sheer number of concepts presented by Mieville assures a rollicking pace to the story, but even so, it might prove too much for those less avid younger readers.
The faults are few: some of the characterisation is perhaps a little flat at times, and the modern vernacular of Zanna and Deeba sometimes felt a little forced, suggesting Meville may be a little out of touch with the kidz today. But, essentially, these are trifling matters in an otherwise engaging, otherworldly read, whose appeal extends well beyond the age of its target audience.
Londoner Zanna finds herself inextricably drawn into a parallel city called Un-Lun-Dun. With her reluctant friend Deeba also along for the ride, Zanna discovers a city that is as different from her own as anything she could imagine. In Un Lun Dun the garbage is alive, ghosts exist and the government consists of an 'all-knowing' band of Propheseers. However, all is not well in this weird ab-city. An evil force known as Smog is threatening to destroy and devour Un Lun Dun and has ambitious plans to move into Zanna and Deeba's own city. In world that is in desperate need of a hero, can two girls stop the Smog with the help of a half-ghost, a pint of milk and a strangely powerful man who controls broken umbrellas?
Un Lun Dun is one of the strangest novels this fantasy reader has encountered, and who usually has his own monopoly on strange! The author, China Mievelle, blends fantasy, thriller and horror to stunning effect in what can only be described as a masterpiece of a story. Mievelle cites authors such as Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker as his inspiration for his novel and it is easy to see where these influences have been drawn upon - elements of Barker's Abarat and Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are obvious. However, what Un Lun Dun really reminds me of is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I am certain Mievelle has attempted to update the classic tale for a modern audience.
If this was Mievelle's intention then, wittingly or not, this is a hugely successful and entertaining update. Un Lun Dun is a much darker, atmospheric city than Oz but the sense of wonder at the imagination of the writer in creating such a fantastic setting remains. This author's powers of description are second to none and I found myself fully immersed in Un Lun Dun and its wacky inhabitants. The characters are truly ridiculous and at times you cannot help but laugh at an elite security force in the shape of dustbins called "The Binja" or a man with a birdcage for a head. Yet, somehow, Un Lun Dun is not a particularly humorous novel.
Despite the ridiculousness of the setting and characters Un Lun Dun is a scary, edgy piece of writing. The heroines have considerable scares and the writing is dark and foreboding with an underlying environmental message that is rammed home in several dark and vivid episodes of violence. There are variations on zombies for Zanna and Deeba to contend with and the villainous fog is a genuinely frightening creation the likes of which schlock horror writers such as James Herbert would be proud. In fact, although this novel is billed as China Mievelle's first venture into fantasy fiction for younger readers, I would think some young readers and even adults may find some of the potential graphic violence a bit much.
In a literary domain dominated by the schmaltzy idealistic world of Harry Potter, Un Lun Dun is a refreshingly gritty tale of magic and adventure where people die, things happen and not everyone wins. Rowling and co would do well to take note of how this author writes to a teenage audience without patronising them with simplistic language and one-dimensional characters.
This is a truly imaginative piece of writing that rarely disappoints. However, if I was looking for criticism, it does take a good while to get going. It is also quite lengthy at a hefty five-hundred plus pages so you will need some perseverance until its wonders unfold before you. If you do stick with it though, what you will find is an edgy, original take on an old classic that will excite and intrigue throughout. This is an author who refuses to dumb down and although you might question the graphic content, any teenager will love this and you owe it to them and yourself to get a copy.
N.B. Review first posted at the not for reward site of www.thebookbag.co.uk
The iron wheel began to spin, slowly at first, then faster and faster. The room grew darker. As the light lessened, so did the sound. Deeba and Zanna stared at each other in wonder. The noise of the cars and vans and motorbikes outside grew tinny ... The wheel turned off all the cars and turned off all the lamps. It was turning off London. Zanna and Deeba are two girls leading ordinary lives, until they stumble into the world of UnLondon, an urban Wonderland where all the lost and broken things of London end up ... and some of its lost and broken people too. Here discarded umbrellas stalk with spidery menace, carnivorous giraffes roam the streets, and a jungle sprawls beyond the door of an ordinary house. UnLondon is under siege by the sinister Smog and its stink-junkie slaves; it is a city awaiting its hero. Guided by a magic book that can't quite get its facts straight, and pursued by Hemi the half-ghost boy, the girls set out to stop the poisonous cloud before it burns everything in its path. They are joined in their quest by a motley band of UnLondon locals, including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas, Obaday Fing, a couturier whose head is an enormous pincushion, and an empty milk carton called Curdle ... and you thought a trip down the rabbit hole was a little out of the ordinary. The world of UnLondon is populated by astonishing frights and delights that will thrill the imagination.