Un Lun Dun
by China Miéville
Published by Ballantine Books
448 pages, 2007
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
When a creative person works on more than one level, it's an exceptional experience. I love watching movies aimed at children that include jokes aimed at grown-ups. So I was pretty wowed by Un Lun Dun, a book for younger adults that works on all levels.
The protagonist is a young girl, there are illustrations in the book, and a glossary offered without a hint of patronizing (for terms in British English for readers familiar with American English) and it's a fantasy that focuses on the lives of young people. The story is about good and evil, a city "under" that mirrors a real city and it's well over 400 pages.
In recent years, we've learned (though some of us probably always knew), that young readers will read long fantasies, and some credit must go to J. K. Rowling for that, I'm sure. She wasn't the first, but she sure made it trendy, bless her. To some extent, she's made it trendy for all readers to be seen reading fantasy novels.
Un Lun Dun is one of those sf/fantasy novels where tons of stuff, lots of ideas and creations are thrown at the reader and you just have to go with it. My experience of reading fantasy is that it challenges the brain a lot. The acceptance of otherworldly things takes a lot of work, and the more otherworldly things there are, the harder the brain labors. But it can be worth it.
In Un Lun Dun, Miéville offers one version of reverse London. While the story starts out with young Zanna receiving messages from this other place, learning that she is, apparently "the shwazzy," as denizens of Un Lun Dun call her, it does not end up being her story. Zanna who is apparently "the chosen one" (shwazzy being a pronunciation of the French word choisis), but it's her friend Deeba who ends up having the adventure. Deeba is determined not to be the shwazzy, but she's the UnShwazzy. So it stands to reason then that things don't go according to plan, or at least according to the ancient prophecy as foreseen in a book in Un Lun Dun. The book, it turns out, gets a lot of things wrong (which puts it into a rather pouty whining mood. But who can blame it, after all, when it's supposed to be a prophecy and it turns out to have all sorts of mistakes?)
This is not a cute story nor a happy land. The illustrations -- also created by Miéville -- can be downright creepy. They are at times very helpful: the "binja" are trash bins who are what you'd get if you combined members of Stomp with some of their equipment, for example. The "cutest" creature in Un Lun Dun, the cuddly object, is a slightly crumpled, slightly smelly piece of trash, a little milk carton who insists on coming along with Deeba, who calls him "Curdle." If you can find that endearing, you're my kind of reader.
The fight for Un Lun Dun against the Smog -- which creeps in to the brains of its citizens, which has evil, addictive nasty powers -- is neither simplistic nor preachy. It's exciting. There are no attempts at lessons here, no grand vision. It's just a fantastic (in all senses) tale of people trying to save their home. The creatures are often pretty normal, and often amazing. There are umbrellas that can save lives and umbrellas that can hurt you. Some of the buildings (here is where I wish the author had done more drawings) are fantastical: homes that look like chests of drawers, homes that look like giant fists, like treehouses, houses made of junk. There are monstrous nasty evil giraffes. (Who ever offered a nasty giraffe before? They're usually so mild and just goofy-looking). Cheers to the author for using storytelling methods that are not at all typical, even for younger readers. He doesn't patronize or ever talk down and the quirkiness and originality of both this reverse world are remarkable: from the methods you take to get there, to the second and third bananas you meet (I do love "Curdle") to the Slaterunners who never touch the ground but run along the rooftops. Sort of.
So yes, books talk, the hero is not the blonde but the little dark-haired girl. There are prejudices -- all ghosts are not that bad, you know, and half-ghosts can even be good. Very little is what it appears here, but you can make sense out of things. In fact, one good lesson to learn about this plane of existence is that it's worth trying something because it might work; it won't work the way it does in the world of London and what you are familiar with, but it might work anyway.
Adventure stories aren't my favorite form of reading. In the typical adventure tale, whether for young reader or adult, many things happen, the pacing is fast and furious and there's more stuff going on than I tend to like. I usually reach a point where it's enough already. That's true here, although since most of the things Miéville has dreamed up here are creative and imaginative, I would have been happier with even 50 fewer pages. However, I didn't mind all that much. When I began to wonder if, in fact, things were just going to go on forever, and I was getting a little antsy, my interest was revived by Miéville's "UnGun," a weapon which gets really creative: it doesn't use typical ammunitions and that untypical ammunition results in some amazing scenes.
There's little cute about this story, and it challenges a lot of assumptions. Miéville has done us a favor by creating a protagonist who was most assuredly not the one chosen to save the day, and it's an excellent turn of events. There are some icky gruesome baddies and the good guys are often a lot of fun. One of the most creative turns in the book is something I can't describe as it not only involves cool imagery but cool typesetting.
The best praise I can offer is that Un Lun Dun has made me want to read the "adult" fiction of China Miéville. | March 2007
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.