I got interested in China Miéville first, not because of his fiction, but because of his public speaking. Interviews or panels – whatever he said fascinated me and made me want to get to know him as an author. When Perdido Street Station blew me away, I knew I wouldn’t stop there. I picked Un Lun Dun next because I wanted to see how somebody as wordy as Miéville would write a novel for young adults. He pulled it off beautifully – then again, I don’t know what else I expected.
Published: Pan Books, 2011 (2007)
Paperback: 521 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: In an unremarkable room, in a nondescript building, a man sat working on very non-nondescript theories.
Stumbling through a secret entrance, Zanna and Deeba enter the strange wonderland of UnLondon. here all the lost and broken things of London end up, and some of its people, too – including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas, and Hemi the half-ghost boy.
But the two girls have arrived at a dangerous time. UnLondon is a place where worlds are alive, where a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, where carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets… and a sinister cloud called Smog is bent on destruction. It’s a frightened city in need of a hero…
Zanna and Deeba are best friends so it is not unusual that they stumble into a huge adventure together. As it becomes clear that Zanna is the Chosen One and the prophecies say she will save UnLondon from the threatening Smog, this book becomes more than just a wanky portal fantasy. Any girl who has ever been the designatet ugly and/or fat friend will easily sympathise with Deeba. She is a loyal friend who tries to be accepting of her friend’s important role. But constantly standing on the sidelines is no fun. Which is why I rooted for her from the word go.
What makes this book readable for younger people is that the language is tuned down quite a bit. There are still big and sometimes difficult words but their meaning is usually clear from the context or explained in the text. That is a huge bonus right there, because that is how children learn new words. Or if they’re as swept up in the adventure as I was, they’ll probably just read over them. Either way, the big words do not distract from the flow of the story.
China Miéville must have a vast imagination. The things he came up with in this book, the creatures and people that live in the abcity, range from hilariously original to absolutely bonkers. There are binja (bins that are ninjas), smombies, and unbrellas. UnLondon is what happens when all the trash and things people throw away in London congregates and creates an entirely new city and culture. Any moil – which is anything mildly obsolete in London – helps make up the stuff UnLondon is made off and there is something fun and new to discover on every page. I also would never have exptected to grow quite so fond of an empty milk carton. But yeah, that little thing totally grew on me.
“My dad hates umbrellas,” said Deeba, swinging her own. “When it rains he always says the same thing. ‘I do not believe the presence of moisture in the air is sufficient reason to overturn society’s usual sensible taboo against wielding spiked clubs at eye level.'”
The themes explored and issues raised are fairly obvious but I loved how Miéville managed to show the complexities of politics in a manner that every child can understand. People who seem to be good aren’t always really good. But they’re not automatically bad either. Some are being lied to, some are doing the lying, others are double-crossing or plain greedy. By putting all of this into the context of the UnLondon society with an obvious and easy-to-identify main antagonist, I believe this shows kids that a little conviction can go a long way. And that not everything is necessarily as it first seems.
That said, Miéville takes on tropes of fantasy books and turns them on their head. We learn how the adventure is supposed to go, throw caution and rules into the wind, and do it our own way. To which I can only say: This is awesome!
Of course, UnLondon is not only made of cool stuff. There are dangers galore which make for great action scenes. But there at least as many great characters with their own lives and back stories that offer us some moments of rest and good old fun. Because this is a YA book, we are introduced to them quickly and don’t necessarily spend a lot of time seeing their character development but they are all sympathetic and lovable. Some of them even get their own illustrations, all of which I found wonderful and adding to the atmosphere of the abcity. Deeba is an engaging and clever heroine-by-accident who makes mistakes but learns from them, as all good rolemodels should. I find myself wanting to read about all the other abcities as well. After all, there is Parisn’t, Lost Angeles, and – my personal favorite – Sans Francisco.
THE GOOD: A fantastic, fun world to discover by following great characters. Quick, short chapters, a fast-moving plot, language that is easy enough for children to read but not talking down to them.
THE BAD: As an adult, I would have liked more depth – basically I would have read the grown-up version of this. But this is a YA book and as such it was superbly done.
BONUS: Curdle, the milk carton.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended, clever fiction for young people that raises issues without lecturing, wraps them into an adventure and makes the imagination soar.
RATING: 8/10 – Excellent