Un Lun Dun
by China Miéville
Cover Artist: August Hall
Review by Gayle Surrette
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345495167
Date: 13 February, 2007 List Price $17.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Un Lun Dun is a topsy-turvy London with a twist of the surreal. It has ninja dustbins, a tailor with a pincushion head, extreme librarians, black window spiders, vicious giraffes, true conductors, and a bridge between any two places. Like Alice, Zanna and Deeba manage to find their way into this world but find the real trick is to survive to get out again. Of course, China Miéville wrote this story so we know it's not going to be a simple quest by the girls to return home. No, it's much, much more than that.
We start out with a straight quest, Zanna and her friends have observed some strange behavior. Animals keep staring at Zanna, the clouds made a picture of her face, a strange person came up to her and gave her a transit card, and several people have called her "shwazzy". Later during French class, they learn that it's not "shwazzy" but "choisi" -- chosen. After a strange fog blankets the area and Zanna's father hits one of her friends with his car, Zanna and Deeba decide they really need to find out what's going on. And that leads them to follow a suspicious umbrella which, of course, leads them to Un Lun Dun and adventure. Because Zanna is the chosen one, and she's expected to fight the Smog and free the land. Everyone is sure it's going to turn out that way because the book says so -- of course the book was fuzzy on the subject of Deeba unless she was a sidekick.
Shortly, the story begins to turn the quest adventure onto its ear. Is the story a quest? Well it's got all the standard elements. However, prophecies always seemed to me to be better explained after the adventure when you look back and can see what fits and what doesn't. The Book has been waiting for the chosen one for centuries and now things aren't going as it expected. Eventually, help comes to Un Lun Dun to conquer the Smog and free both Un Lun Dun and London but along the way there's a lot of unexpected deviation from the norm for these types of tales. Miéville actually seems to deal with the tropes as you'd expect if you were to find yourself in such a circumstance rather than by the standard manner.
Neither of the girls could be Alice -- they grew up in a different time. Our world is not the world of even 30 years ago and childhood has changed. We have cell phones for emergencies and we often question authority. Children often ask "why" and it's not found to be impertinent but encouraged. Thus, while the old quest tropes can be used they are not plug-n-play components. They have to be updated for today's sensibilities, which is rarely done in fantasy, let alone young adult fantasy.
The book will have art work by China Miéville. Some of them can be seen on the book's website. This site also has an author interview and teacher guides. The book is being marketed as a young adult book. Don't let that stop you from picking it up. There's enough to entertain those who think they've left childhood far behind. The chapters are very short and in my opinion this would be a great read aloud book for family time.
So, if you enjoy a rollicking good story, told with tongue firmly planted in cheek while dealing with the important issues of today: pollution, greed, loyalty, family, life roles, and expectations -- this is the book for you. Don't let the young adult designation keep you from this wonderful adventure to UnLondon.
NOTE: Interior illustrations are by China Miéville.