Un Lun Dun by China Miéville
When I bought this book I had no idea that it was Young Adult fiction, but since I’m starting a teacher training course soon it’s good to experience some more books for younger readers to recommend to students. Un Lun Dun works brilliantly as a kids book, with China Miéville’s potent imagination providing plenty for children to enjoy, but it’s also a great read for an adult reader.
Un Lun Dun primarily takes place in the parallel city of UnLondon, a bizarre reflection of London in a parallel dimension. The elephant in the room is the immediate comparison to Neil Gaiman’s excellent Neverwhere, which also takes place in a parallel London, but Miéville’s genuinely puts an entirely unique spin personal to him upon it. Neverwhere and Un Lun Dun’s depiction of a bizarre London alternate are as different as two depictions of the same fundamental concept can be. If anything, Miéville’s Kraken felt more indebted to Neverwhere than Un Lun Dun does, with the titular city showing Miéville’s excellent world building at its best. Whether it’s Perdido Street Station’s New Crobuzon or The City & The City‘s Beszel and Ul Qoma, Miéville knows how to create a fascinating and vivid setting, and UnLondon is a great example of this.
Un Lun Dun follows two young Londoner girls, Zanna and Deeba, who are bought into the city of UnLondon after a series of strange incidences in the real world. There, Zanna finds out that she is the ‘Shwazzy’, the chosen one who is prophesised to help the city of UnLondon defeat the ‘Smog.’ Following the cleaning up of the air on our side, the infamous London smog gained sentience and fled to UnLondon, where it has been marshalling it’s power. Along the way Zanna and Deeba encounter a wide range of weird and wonderful characters to help, and hinder, their battle with the sinister Smog.
Although it’s perhaps a bit overly long for a children’s book, the pacing is still much snappier than many of Miéville’s works. This being a China Miéville book, there’s an interesting political undertone to the whole thing, and the book holds a clear message about avoiding blind trust in authority figures, and the importance of asking questions and exercising a healthy cynicism. Miéville has a lot of fun mocking the traditional fantasy pre-ordained ‘quest’ structure, and makes a conscious effort to undermine it at every turn, often with very funny consequences. Un Lun Dun is a reaction against rote storytelling for children, and it’s great to see an author trying to do something so interesting in a book like this.
The fact that he’s writing for children forces Miéville to rein himself in a bit, and the book is probably better for it. Although it’s far from dull plain prose, Miéville writes with a clarity which can be lacking in his adult fiction. Sure, we lose a bit of the linguistic grandeur which we come to expect from Miéville, but we also lack the tiresome rough patches that can invade his work.
Although Zanna is the ‘Shwazzy’, the story is primarily told from her friend Deeba’s perspective, and she’s the real star. Deeba is a great character, brave and strong, but also funny and droll; she’s the perfect kind of role model for young girls reading this book, and is the kind of character we rarely see written by male authors for children. There’s a strong streak of Lyra Belacqua to her, with the less well fleshed out Zanna seeming to in some ways be a parody of the ‘too good to be real but ultimately dull’ female protagonist we often see in fantasy written for children. There’s a charming supporting cast too, with plenty of highly strange figures, such as Brokkenboll, the lord of broken umbrellas, and Curdle, Deeba’s pet milk carton.
Un Lun Dun may not quite reach the dizzying heights of Perdido Street Station, The Scar or The City & The City, but it’s nonetheless a great read for adults and children alike. It’s that ideal combination of funny, scary and intelligent that the best children books should be, and one which I would recommend for any parent whose child has a streak of the macabre.