China Miéville has produced an urban fantasy novel, three Bas-Lag books and a collection of short stories. Perhaps seeking a new direction, perhaps inspired by a certain other British author’s success with the YA market, his latest takes a twelve-year-old through a grimy looking-glass to a magic world facing peril.
Title: Un Lun Dun
Author: China Miéville
A contemporary girl finds herself playing hero in a strange urban world where the lost things and people of London collect. It’s not just the rules of the mundane world that no longer apply in UnLunDun; Mieville’s fantasy plays a few games with the traditional quest narrative.
The book’s central twist, and the manner in which the Book’s prophecies have been handled, are both things this genre has needed to see.
A clever twist occurs early on that establishes how Mieville’s version of the YA quest fantasy will differ from everyone else’s. The “false start,” however, plays more slowly and less interesting than it should, and I suspect some readers will lose interest.
Originality: 4/6. Un Lun Dun recalls Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and its basic premise has been used many times before. What makes this novel original are Mieville’s images and his somewhat subversive handling of genre conventions.
Imagery: 6/6 Mieville proves once again that he can conjure up bizarre and interesting images: carnivorous giraffes, a half-ghost boy, smog-addicted shock troops, and some really bizarre creatures that defy easy description.
Characterization: 4/6. The protagonist emerges as a strong character, but hardly anyone else does. Characterization has been a strong point in Mieville’s previous work; here, we see legions of characters who are fantastically-conceived, but otherwise not very memorable. At times, Curdle the Carton seems forgotten altogether.
Emotional Response: 4/6. Many characters die or disappear over the course of this novel, and I found that I had trouble caring. The secondary characters aren’t that well-developed. However, the story did catch my attention, especially in the final two-thirds and, if some developments are predictable, the epilogue was refreshingly different from many YA books.
Editing: 5/6. Unlike Mieville’s other novels, this one seems too long for its premise.
Overall score: 5/6 Un Lun Dun can be a fairly dark place, but interesting things happen there. Mieville includes some fascinating concepts and images. As in Alice in Wonderland, topical references have been expanded into the fantasy realm in ways which work even if one does not understand the original. Un Lun Dun includes references to the environmental issues and the War on Terror. It’s tempting to see the unbrella plot as a comment on the National Identity Card, though I don’t know if Mieville intended such a direct reference.
In total, Un Lun Dun receives 32/42