China Miéville has produced an urban fantasy novel, three Bas-Lag books, and a collection of short stories. Perhaps seeking a new direction, perhaps inspired by a certain other British author’s success with the YA market, his latest takes a twelve-year-old girl on a grimy trip through the looking-glass to a magic world facing peril. We're in a version of London, but cobwebs cover its equivalent of Westminster Abbey and its greatest bridge travels around town. It's not just the rules of the mundane world that no longer apply: Mieville’s fantasy plays a few games with the traditional quest narrative, as well.
Title: Un Lun Dun
Author: China Miéville
First published: 2007
The story begins with two young friends, Zanna and Deeba, who begin to experience odd disruptions of the normal order of things, ones strangely reminiscent of what might happen in, say, a fantasy novel. Animals bow to Zanna. A mysterious message promises adventure. Before long, they find themselves in a bizarre urban world where the lost things of London accumulate. The adventure ends quickly, with hundreds of pages remaining of Miéville’s novel and Un Lun Dun’s own talking book of prophecies bemoaning the fact that his contents appear to be inaccurate.
The book’s central twist, and the manner in which the Book’s prophecies have been handled, are both things this genre has needed to see. This twist establishes how Mieville’s version of the YA quest fantasy will differ from everyone else’s. The "false start," however, plays more slowly and proves less interesting than it should, and I suspect some readers will lose interest before the book's best portions.
Un Lun Dun recalls Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, but Mieville’s prodigious imagination produces original elements. This novel serves up vicious carnivorous giraffes, a half-ghost boy, smog-addicted shock troops, and jungle contained in a house. Miéville also demonstrates his love of words, with the Speaker, whose utterings take the form of oddball creatures. Throughout, the author complements his words with black and white illustrations.
As our protagonist progresses through her many adventures, she emerges as a strong character. Unfortunately, hardly anyone else manages to accomplish the same. Characterization has been a strong point in Mieville’s previous work; here, we see legions of characters that are fantastically-conceived, but otherwise not very memorable. Many die or disappear over the course of this novel, and I found that I had trouble caring. At times, Curdle the Living Milk-Carton seems forgotten altogether.
Un Lun Dun can be a fairly dark place, but interesting things happen there. As in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, topical references have been expanded into the fantasy realm in a way which works even if one does not really understand the original. Un Lun Dun includes references to environmental issues and the War on Terror. It’s tempting to see the unbrella plot as a comment on the National Identity Card, though I don’t know if Miéville intended such a direct reference. The handling of the "Shwazzy" seems more likely an intended reference, and a reflection of the author's Marxist politics.
This isn’t Miéville’s best book, but I’m also not its intended audience. It caught my attention, especially in the final two-thirds and, if some developments are predictable, the epilogue was a refreshing change from many YA books. Although arguably a better crafter of words, Miéville seems unlikely to match the popularity of J.K. Rowlings. However, he has produced an impressive body of literature which I believe will be read for some time.