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Impressive YA debut from one of the modern masters of adult fantasy
on 8 June 2007
Un Lun Dun is the fifth novel by British fantasy author China Mieville. Mieville has become the guiding light of the 'New Weird' fantasy movement which has become a major force in the genre in the last few years, and in his Bas-Lag novels he's created a compellingly different secondary world mixing elements of fantasy and steampunk to good effect. However, in this latest book Mieville takes a break from Bas-Lag to instead write and illustrate his first novel for younger readers. Given that Mieville's adult work has a grotesque fairy-tale quality to it, this isn't as strange a move as it first seems, and his writing and the subject matter turn out to be a winning combination.
Another world lies beyong this one, separated from it by immense distance but at the same time accessible through cracks in reality. Each city in our world has its own reflection or 'abcity' in this other world. The great metropolis of London is shadowed by UnLondon, a city of the dispossessed and the magical, a city under threat by a sinister force known only as the Smog. Into this world come two young girls, Deeba and Zanna, whose coming has long been foretold. They are prophecised to save UnLondon from the Smog, but there is one snag: they haven't a clue how they're going to do it.
Un Lun Dun opens with Mieville on slightly shaky ground, betraying a slight lack of confidence in tackling this new audience (particularly in his handling of how streetwise London kids talk and interact). Perhaps aware this isn't his natural element, he very quickly hurls his characters into the streets of UnLondon and unleashes his fertile imagination in full force, rapidly ensnaring our protagonists in a very strange but at the same time familiar landscape populated by all manner of weird and wonderful creatures. In the afterword to the book, Mieville expresses his thanks to Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, and indeed the novel is reminiscent of a crazy mash-up between those writers in style and tone. But it is Mieville's constant invention that really impresses the reader, from the bullet-proof umbrellas to the ninja dustbins to the half-ghosts to the black windows. Nearly every one of the 99 short chapters introduces an impressive new concept or character or idea that will keep readers enthralled and rattling through it's 500 pages at quite a pace.
The novel follows in the recent footsteps of Phillip Pullman by being a fiendishly clever, original children's tale whilst simultaneously telling a different story to adult readers. Mieville's political leanings are pretty clear from his earlier work, but Un Lun Dun weaves them in perhaps more subtly than before, with some biting social commentary on the environment and the responsibilities of government. He even has time to mildly attack overly repressive anti-terror legislation, which is a surprising move in a YA novel, but something I suspect most younger readers won't even notice. Mieville doesn't pull any punches in this regard despite this being no doubt seen by some as a 'lighter' work; he's also not afraid to kill off characters either, lending the book a slightly darker edge than some other YA books around at the moment. Some very mild counter-points to the Harry Potter books can also be found in the novel, particularly Mieville's hatred of the class system and a very funny take on the nature of prophecy.
Aside from the shaky opening, Un Lun Dun's only other major flaw is that the ending is left perhaps a little bit too open for a sequel or three. However, the new world that Mieville has created is every bit as compelling and fresh and interesting as Bas-Lag is (if far more whimsical), and return trips to UnLondon and the other abcities will be most welcome. Praise must also be given to Mieville's illustrations, which adorn the book. They are superb, lying somewhere at the Monty Python end of the spectrum of surrealism (but pretty accurately depicting what's going on in the text) and adding a great deal to the enjoyment of the book.