#CBR6 Review #12 – Un Lun Dun
Profile: Young Adult, Fantasy, Weird Fantasy
After Action Report:
‘China Miéville’ and ‘children’s book’ are not, at first glance, two things that would appear to mesh. Miéville, who I have described in previous reviews as being macabre, dense and sometimes overwhelmingly complicated (in an enjoyable way), is hardly the first person I’d pick to write a book for older kids and young adults. Nevertheless, Un Lun Dun is a triumphant piece of fiction. It taps into the fundamental truths of adventure stories, uses them where appropriate and turns them on their head when necessary. Miéville’s singular ability to deconstruct genre and trope help create an earnest adventure for those of us who were never singled out for greatness.
Un Lun Dun follows two London girls, Zanna and Deeba who stumble onto a pathway into UnLondon, an abcity behind and beyond London proper. Suddenly dropped into a world of magic, animate garbage, carnivorous giraffes and a never ending parade of strange sights, the girls are desperate to find their way back home. But Zanna is the subject of an ancient prophesy. Called ‘The Shwazzy,’ she is destined to save UnLondon from the malicious cloud of toxins known as the Smog.
Where Un Lun Dun starts to stand out is when the prophesies start to go wrong. Like any good modern villain, The Smog is genre savvy and has taken preemptive action to foil events as written. Revealing any more than that constitutes a major spoiler, but this reversal is so core to the flow of the book that it must be mentioned in passing. Un Lun Dun derives much of its strength as a novel from the moments when Miéville acknowledges the plots of a children’s adventure and subverts them. These subversions are delightful, but are also very easy to spoil.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Miéville novel if I didn’t talk about the city. UnLondon, and its fellow abcities, are a wonderful concept. A secret city just underneath our reality that is composed of the useless things that we forget about. Like Neil Gaiman’s ‘London Below’ or Norton Juster’s ‘Lands Beyond,’ UnLondon is a blend of traditional fantasy elements and more modern concepts. It’s a city with public transit and housing, but it is also an untamed land stalked by Smog-created monsters, trashcan ninjas and other fever-dreams of Miéville fertile imagination. In the vein of good urban fantasy, UnLondon feels civilized, but not exactly safe.
It is that liminal danger that makes Un Lun Dun legitimately scary at times. The sense of safety normally associated with living in an urban or suburban environment is lost in the juxtaposition of the normal and the fantastic. I can easily see a young reader becoming pathologically afraid of giraffes after reading this book. But at the same time, this sense of danger is central to the idea of a good fairytale adventure. It is to his credit that Miéville is able to instil this aspect of adventure stories, even in well-read readers who know all too well how these stories are supposed to end.
Un Lun Dun falls very comfortably into my growing category of ‘modern fairytales done right,’ so my recommendation should not come without the warning that I love these stories and these characters more than is really reasonable. My arguments in their advocacy are increasingly well trod, and therefore less credible. But I do feel that Un Lun Don brings some new pieces to the game. Deeba is a truly spectacular character and a surprisingly compelling role model. Her message is one of perseverance and self-confidence even in the face of disbelief. Now if only there were a sequel…