2007. Ballantine. Hardcover. 432 pages.
From: the public library
In a nutshell:
Two school friends, Zanna Moon and Deeba Resham, have been seeing some strange things – a fox that appears to greet Zanna, and a broken umbrella that appears to be sentient. One night, Zanna leads them both through a portal to an alternate version of their own city called UnLondon. There they will discover that Zanna has been expected by the inhabitants as the one to defeat the growing power of the Smog, an enemy with the desire to consume all things, starting with UnLondon. But what was expected – what was predicted – will fall away to be supplanted by a set of heroes whose journey is quite unpredictable.
One of the first reviews I wrote for this blog was for China Mieville’s book, The City & The City. I was fascinated by the mind-bending setting that Mieville created. I have meant for a long time to read another Mieville book, and finally settled on Un Lun Dun, which I read with delight over the holidays.
I went in knowing very little about Un Lun Dun (I didn’t even know the title meant UnLondon). The book jacket is refreshingly reticent on plot details past a certain point in the narrative. As with The City & The City, Mieville’s skill at world-building was at the forefront. Once the characters reach UnLondon, it’s wall-to-wall with the strange, imaginative and whimsical. There are trashcans that know martial arts (called binjas) and people who live on roofs, and feral trash that roam the alleys in packs. And that is just a tiny tiny sample of what’s in store for the reader. There are also drawings by the author scattered throughout to help us see a sampling of the things that the characters see.
The whimsical setting is what kept me interested for the first hundred pages. Because otherwise, I was feeling that the characters and story were lackluster. Zanna, the one that is regarded as the savior of UnLondon, was kind of bland. She and Deeba get shepherded across the alternate city by various oddballs, which showed off more of that Mieville imagination, but was so far not a plot that made me sit up and say “please sir can I have some more.” I also thought (throughout the book, actually) that Mieville’s dialogue sometimes had problems sounding natural.
But then, a little over 100 pages in, the story suddenly changed. It turned out not to be a story about the Chosen One (Zanna) and her prophesied victory at all. Rather, it’s about her friend, Deeba and the real story is a subversion of the story that was expected.
Deeba Resham’s rise to protagonist status reminds me, as I’m writing this, of my realization that Samwise Gamgee had become the hero in Return of the King. Deeba and Sam are both incredibly loyal characters and it’s their loyalty that leads them onto their adventure. In the case of Deeba Resham, it’s her curiosity and feeling of responsibility for the people of UnLondon that cause her to continue the adventure, even when she could have bailed out.
For those of you who salivate over those stories which are themselves about storytelling, Un Lun Dun has some delicious stuff coming your way. My favorite moment was when Deeba finds out she was mentioned in the prophecy only as a sidekick to Zanna. She is upset by the entire concept of sidekicks and says “That’s no way to talk about anyone! To say they’re just hangers-on to someone more important.” There’s also a great critique of the quest structure which I’ll leave readers to find out for themselves. And that’s not all: Un Lun Dun is chock full of clever wordplay and allusions to other stories (a little Narnia reference here, a little Harry Potter there, etc.)
And this is not something I’d normally appreciate about a book, but I think the weapon that the good guys use is one of the most awesome weapons ever. It was the perfect weapon to accompany the building climax and the final confrontation.
One of my favorite aspects about Un Lun Dun was Mieville’s emphasis on the value of life, in whatever form life takes. The deaths of even briefly-met characters in the book were not glossed over or seen as acceptable losses. Deeba in particular did not let these deaths become forgotten, even as the events piled on to each other and things got chaotic.
There are so many awesome details to the world of Un Lun Dun that I could list, but they’re probably better as discoveries within the story than as something told in a review.
Clearly, I should not wait as long between Mieville’s books as I did with The City & The City and Un Lun Dun. I think Kraken might be the next one, or maybe I’ll go for Embassytown. Either way, I feel like Mieville’s going to be an author I can trust for a good read.
Excerpts from other reviews:
The Black Letters – “The characters are all likable enough, including the quick-thinking, occasionally snarky heroine, but few are really memorable enough to be lovable, and I had about the same feeling about the book as a whole.”
Book Monkey – “The whole concept of taking stereotypical fantasy tropes, and breathing a much-needed bit of fresh air into them, really made this story its own, for me. I laughed inwardly many a time, acknowledging just how clever and original Miéville always is, without fail.”
things mean a lot – “You know when you can feel that an author is really having fun with a book? Un Lun Dun very much gave me that impression. It’s quite a dark story in some ways, but it’s also very playful”
6 responses to “Un Lun Dun by China Mieville”
Ooh, sounds fun. My boyfriend is on a China Mieville kick at the moment – he read The City & the City a while ago, and then just read Kraken and Perdido Street Station – and I think I’m going to have to hurry to read my copy of this one, which I bought in Heathrow/en route home from a trip to England earlier this year, before he does!
Do read Kraken next! It’s such a great read, and it has the same playful quality as this (though in a much darker way).
It feels like Perdido Street Station was published just yesterday and my intentions of reading it still feel fresh, and of course he has published so many books since, and I’ve yet to read one of them (though I’ve picked up a couple more with those shiny good intentions). Gah. I really must: you make it sound so wonderful indeed!
I still haven’t read a China Mieville book yet but I’ve been meaning to for ages! Would this be a good book to start with, or should I read something else first?
This sounds fantastic! I felt the same way after The City and The City, but haven’t read any more of his books yet. The idea of a “binja” made me laugh so much.
Heather – Yes, you should! And what an appropriate book to buy in England too!
Nymeth – Thanks for the confirmation that Kraken will be enjoyable!
Buried in Print – He does have a lot more books than I expected. There were a couple of his earlier books whose titles were unfamiliar to me when I saw them listed out in one of the inside pages in Un Lun Dun.
Anastasia – Yes, I think Un Lun Dun would be a good introduction. It’s a lot of fun. That is my opinion based on only two books of his of course!
Kim – If you liked the idea of the binjas, then I think you’ll like the world of UnLondon. Another example: there is a Webminster Abbey which is of course covered in web canopies which are inhabited by Black Windows.