REVIEW: Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

In an unremarkable room, in a nondescript building, a man sat working on very non-nondescript theories.

Un Lun Dun is a renegade quest story set partially in London and partially in a cracked version of England’s capital that I immediately believed; it’s the world that I see around me whenever I think ‘what if?’ What if I climbed all the way to the top of the bookcase? What if a school of fish decided to become a person? What if cats are actually stupid hipsters, rather than mysterious harbingers? What if prophecies don’t pan out? China Miéville plays with the answers to these ‘what ifs’ in a wonderfully irreverent way and uses them to build a crick-crack world of puns and characters.

The story tumbles, bouncing off the reader’s expectations. It starts like a typical quest story: Zanna and Deeba have noticed the portents in the sky over Kilburn comprehensive, the strange people who shake Zanna’s hands, the foxes that follow her. When they make their way down to Unlondon, they are confronted by wraiths, by Obaday Fing the tailor with pins in his head, the bus conductors who left London when they became obsolete. They are dragged along to the Pons Abscondicus where the prophets live, while being chased by the villainsome Smog (who moved to Unlondon when it was beaten in London, grew bigger and meaner and created footsoldiers known as Stink Junkies and Smombies). So having been introduced to Zanna ‘the Schwazzy’ (from choisir, French for ‘chosen’), Deeba the potential sidekick, the villainous Smog and a prophecy from a sentient Book, the reader expects a certain sequence of events.

Now this is where the real genius of the storytelling comes in: Zanna is injured, loses her memories of her and Deeba’s adventures and has to be returned to London. The Book has an emotional crisis as it realises that all of its prophecies are useless and proceeds to sulk terribly. Deeba drags Zanna home and tries to get on with her life. Except that she keeps wondering about her friends in Unlondon – how are they getting along against the smog? Will Mr. Brokkenbroll, the master of the unbrellas, realise his plan to protect Unlondon? And was Hemi the half-ghost boy really all that bad? Deeba wonders, and wonders, and then finds out something that no-one in Unlondon has any way of knowing, something that will greatly affect their ability to fight the Smog, and decides that she has to go back.

So she packs a bag, goes to the library and climbs the bookcase. And keeps climbing, up and up and up the storyladder until she eventually arrives in the Wordhoard Pit in Unlondon. From there, she embarks on one of the most unusual quests in the history of fantasy quests aimed at children/young adults, in which there is no guiding prophecy (or at least, not one that’s right), no Chosen One, all the allies that they need have been hoodwinked by hidden enemies, and when characters die they do not come back (except for in one small typo in my copy, but I’m not counting the typo).

It has been a long time since I encountered so many fantastic characters in a single book – I could not possibly name them all here. The world is fragile and jagged and oddly believeable, at turns hilarious and terrifying (I am never, ever going to be able to look at a giraffe with anything other than suspicion and fear) and the story… Well the story is the crowning glory here. I can hardly count the amount of times I have read a book and started yelling at it, because why why why must they do things as it is destined? Why is that person chosen, and that person not? Why can’t they just think, rather than following the instructions of some dusty oracle who has never had to leave her temple and stand on the battlefield and watch people perish? Why do these main characters, who have been reasonably likeable, suddenly become total imbeciles and screw over all their friends when they have to save the world?

And here, in this novel, is a main character who thinks. Rather than going along with the prophecies, Deeba thinks. She thinks, and she forces circumstances to work for her and changes the story and saves as many of her friends as she can while forging onwards to defeat the Smog in a style that is totally her own. That, more than the cracking storytelling and the frazzled world and the brilliant punning names for things (binja=ninja bins, Parisn’t, abcities, Skool-a character who is a school of fish in a diving suit, unbrellas and rebrellas, Thanatopia) made me warm to this book instantly and will, I think, ensure that it remains one of my favourites. Definitely one to read, whatever age you are. UnChosen forever!

As a note, people may find it interesting to also read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which has a very similar world layout with a fantasy version of London juxtaposed with a real London – they are known as London Below and London Above. For me, these two books feel quite closely related in many ways, although the stories that they tell are different. I have this image in my head of London Below and Unlondon as neighbours, who occasionally pop around to borrow sugar and monsters from each other.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Intellectus_Speculativus
    May 04, 2015 @ 05:42:21

    The alternate-Londons are a theme of Mieville’s, and indeed more broadly parallel cities which don’t interact or interact oddly; Rat King and Kraken both take place in London in a similar way, while The City and The City is a crime novel set in two cities that occupy the same geography but are totally separate locations.

    Reply

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