Review of Un Lun Dun by

Book cover for Un Lun Dun

I’ve gradually been making my way through China Miéville’s back catalogue. He’s one of those authors who is prolific, but not in a terrifyingly fecund sort of way. I feel like I can play catch-up without being overwhelmed. Well, without being overwhelmed by the number of titles to read. Miéville’s characteristic, crafty style means that I might be overwhelmed in other ways.

I made the mistake of taking my form tutor group to the library. I was excited, because it was the first day the new school library was open to students, and I’m stressing independent reading with my tutor group this year. I call this decision to visit the library a mistake only because you can’t let me loose in a library and not expect me to get a few books. In this case, I saw Un Lun Dun prominently featured on a shelf and decided this was a good opportunity to sample Miéville’s "young adult" novel. I was not disappointed.

I don’t number Miéville among my favourite authors, but I would certainly call myself a fan. I don’t always enjoy his books, but they never fail to impress me with their quality—there isn’t a bad Miéville book, so much as there are books I liked and books that just didn’t appeal to me, personally. His commitment to creating strange worlds that are nevertheless somewhat recognizable is second to none, and Un Lun Dun is another perfect example of this consummate craftsmanship.

Deeba and Zanna are school-age children dealing with the natural school-age issues. That is, until animals start talking to Zanna. Then they find their way into Un Lun Dun (UnLondon), where everyone regards Zanna as the Shwazzy, the Chosen One, who will deliver the abcity from the terrifying sentient Smog that threatens it. Unfortunately, the prophecies turn out to be … well … wrong. And though the Chosen One can’t save UnLondon, Deeba, through a great deal of persistence and no small amount of cleverness, does her best.

Deeba is a strong contender for my Favourite Protagonist of 2013, if I had such an award, which I don’t. She is, of course, the UnChosen One. She is listed in the prophecy book only as the “funny” sidekick to the Shwazzy. When Zanna doesn’t exactly turn out as everyone hopes, it’s Deeba who finds her way back to UnLondon. And from that point, she calls the shots. No one else takes her aside and patronizes her because she is a young woman. She decides who to befriend. She decides they’re going on a quest for the six items that will help them defeat the Smog, and when that starts taking too long, she decides to jump straight to the final item. She assesses the situation and decides when they will take risks. When her allies, who are older and often more powerful and sometimes even wiser, run out of ideas and the situation seems hopeless, it’s always Deeba who comes up with a new perspective, a new strategy.

I don’t want to make Deeba sound perfect. She makes plenty of mistakes and missteps, which she then has to fix later. I just want to stick this book in the face of everyone captivated by the Bella Swans of the young adult protagonist world. Bella swoons, mopes, and faints. Deeba fights, plans, and outwits. The difference is stark, and it’s encouraging to know there are some brilliant and inspiring protagonists out there for young adult readers to find. Plus, they get to experience the dazzling nature of Miéville’s worldbuilding.

Anyone who has experienced any of Miéville’s other imagined worlds will immediately find UnLondon familiar. Other writers have explored the idea of abcities, perhaps most notably Neil Gaiman in Neverwhere. Miéville gives Gaiman a shout-out in his acknowledgements, so evidently he found Neverwhere somewhat influential. Both authors depict a fantastical “other London” grown from the dreamstuff and discards of Londoners present and past. Both books explore, to some extent, the idea of belonging and not belonging, of destiny versus free will. However, Neverwhere is an adult novel, while Un Lun Dun is decidedly adolescent. Whereas Richard Mayhew deals with the problems of a fiancee and a working man, Deeba struggles with friendship, loyalty, and the more basic and intense relationships formed in adolescence. In this sense, though the novels are somewhat similar in tone and ideas, they are different enough to be complementary and entertaining on their own merits.

Both Gaiman and Miéville like to twist language for their own purposes (and they love puns, especially for place names). Yet Gaiman focuses more on historical motifs while Miéville prefers to manipulate nature. Hence, UnLondon features an explorer that is a parakeet in a birdcage atop a man’s body, a forest inside a house, creatures called “Utterlings” formed from words themselves, etc. Miéville enjoys playing “what if” games with the reader, as he does in his other books, and it always just leaves me a little bit jealous that he has such an amazing imagination.

In some of his other books, Miéville can let his fantastic concepts get away from him. As a result, the books earn a reputation of being inaccessible or inscrutable. I haven’t always found this to be the case, but I can see why some might. Un Lun Dun is an antipattern in this regard. I don’t know if it’s because Miéville is doing something differently to target a slightly younger audience, or if it’s just a consequence of the nature of the story. But this is among the less confusing of his works, and as such might be a suitable introduction, particularly for those younger readers who are nevertheless ready to sample his other books after this one.

Un Lun Dun is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it’s now one of my favourite books by China Miéville.

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