Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Un Lun Dun

I was excited to finally get a chance to read Un Lun Dun (2007) by China Mieville when the book finally came up on my PBS wishlist (I think I'd been in line for almost two years waiting for it...).  Mieville is arguably one of the best talents to appear on the science/fantasy/weird fiction scene in the last decade. His Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002) were absolutely stunning novels, and I see that The City & The City (2010) finally netted him the big one, a Hugo Award, to add to his growing collection of honors.

In a major departure from these previous works, which were most definitely adult-themed, Un Lun Dun is geared toward a younger audience.  I'd say a middle schooler could read the book and understand the plot fine, but some thematic devices  and language complexity add a level of sophistication to the writing.  I didn't think the book simplistic in the least (this was my major criticism of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman), so readers of "serious" fiction should not hesitate to pick up Un Lun Dun.  I hate to drag out the well-worn 'If you like Neil Gaiman's [insert novel title here], you'll like [insert novel here]' line but, in this case, it rings true.

The story opens with a couple of friends, Zanna and Deeba, who begin to experience some fairly strange things in their everyday life.  One such event, when a broken umbrella is very obviously spying on them from outside a window, leads them to the strange land of UnLondon (hence the name of the novel) which turns out to be a nonsensical mirror of the real London.  UnLondon is inhabited by a vast array of characters that may or may not be human, and most of the objects in the city are a strange collection of things that have been cast off in London as junk.

Amid this strange setting, Zanna and Deeba learn that UnLondon is being threatened by a powerful enemy known as The Smog.  The Smog, as it turns out, is a cloud of smog (think the smoke monster from Lost) that burns anything it can get its tendrils on to grow larger and more powerful.  An ancient prophecy forcasts a Chosen One (the 'Shwazzy') who will save the city from The Smog.  Zanna is immediately recognized as The Shwazzy, but in her first battle with Mr. Smog, she is incapacitated and returns home to London in a debilitated state.

This leaves Deeba (The UnChosen) to save her friend by herself in a series of interesting adventures that are so outlandish that my description couldn't do them justice.  Besides, part of the fun of the book is seeing what crazy thing is around the next corner and what clever pun it will be built upon.  Along the way she picks up a motley group of friends who turn out to be indispensable to her quest.  Mieville throws in a good number of ink illustrations in the pages to help us imagine some of the stranger encounters.

Un Lun Dun deliberately turns a number of time-honored fantasy conventions on their head.  It so happens that the hero chosen by fate turns out to be fairly useless, the all-important quest objects required to reach the ultimate goal go unclaimed by our heroes, and the book of UnLondon prophecy turns out to be almost wholly inaccurate.

I admit that I somewhat struggled to become engaged by Un Lun Dun.  The chaotic, disorderly nature of UnLondon combined with Mieville unveiling it in short bursts (the 300 page book has nearly 100 chapters) prevented me from establishing a strong connection with the setting as a whole.  This being said, there can be no argument that the novel is well-conceived and cleverly executed, and, in the end, I quite enjoyed it.

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