Un Lun Dun
by China Mieville
Young Adult Fantasy with a Twist
A review by Doug Brown
Known previously for his fantastic adult science fiction (I highly recommend Perdido Street Station), China Miéville has branched into young adult fantasy with his imaginative Un Lun Dun. It starts off seeming a bit familiar and derivative -- a young girl in London keeps being approached by strange people who look at her reverently and say things like "It's very exciting to meet you." Then she and her friend find themselves in an alternate London deep underground (UnLondon -- get it? -- Un Lun Dun) where they are picked up by an old fashioned double-decker bus that gets around unconventionally. Add in a prophecy that the chosen one will defeat the forces of whatever, and you've got the young adult fantasy formula familiar to readers of the Harry Potter books.
Except, Miéville has always been a bit iconoclastic in his writing. Therefore, having firmly established the genre and its forms, he proceeds to demolish them. Maybe the chosen one isn't really the one after all. Maybe the prophecy is entirely wrong. And you know how prophecies in fantasy novels always have a chain of tasks -- the hero must first get the Key of Indica, then the Beer Coaster of Gambrinius, and then the Sword of Whocares, and then they can defeat the Whatsit -- well, Miéville dares ask, "Why not just go get the sword?"
The world of UnLondon is delightfully rich, filled with imaginative elements. The city is largely formed from trash that comes down from London, but once it crosses over it becomes semi-sentient. Buildings form from pieces of stereo equipment, bits of trash can become pets, and unbrellas -- that is, broken umbrellas -- can flit about on their own. This trash is called moil, short for Mostly Obsolete In London. An old enemy, The Smog, has gained new strength from sources unknown, so people begin anticipating the arrival of the Shwazzy -- the girl who will carry out the prophecy and defeat The Smog. Enter Zanna and her friend Deeba. Strange people have started reverently whispering the word Shwazzy around Zanna, and a wild fox even bows to her. But when Zanna and Deeba accidentally arrive in UnLondon, the prophecies immediately begin going awry. It is left to Deeba to pick up and try to save UnLondon, accompanied by her self-adopted milk carton pet Curdle and a half-ghost boy named Hemi. Periodically she is defended by some garbage cans with martial arts skills (the Binja). Great twisted fun.
Un Lun Dun doesn't have the breathless otherness and depth of Perdido Street Station, but it isn't intended to. As a young adult fantasy novel, it has the requisite components: an engaging set of characters including a strong lead who is just a normal child in extraordinary circumstances, a strange landscape with familiar elements in unfamiliar configurations, an evil baddie, and peril galore. The one thing that might trip up some younger readers is unfamiliarity with UK-isms, which Miéville has anticipated by providing a short glossary in the back. Miéville also provides quirky illustrations scattered throughout the book, sometimes across the middle of pages. The chapters are all short, which make for convenient mass-transit (or vacation) reading. Un Lun Dun is a nice little morsel that makes a great chaser after a dense nonfiction book, and is a good recommendation for someone who has already read Philip Pullman's fabulous His Dark Materials series (and those books about the boy wizard).