Un Lun Dun by China Miéville
The iron wheel began to spin, slowly at first, then faster and faster. The room grew darker. As the light lessened, so did the sound. Deeba and Zanna stared at each other in wonder. The noise of the cars and vans and motorbikes outside grew tinny . . . The wheel turned off all the cars and turned off all the lamps. It was turning off London.
Zanna and Deeba are two girls leading ordinary lives, until they stumble into the world of UnLondon, an urban Wonderland where all the lost and broken things of London end up . . . and some of its lost and broken people too. Here discarded umbrellas stalk with spidery menace, carnivorous giraffes roam the streets, and a jungle sprawls beyond the door of an ordinary house.
UnLondon is under siege by the sinister Smog and its stink-junkie slaves; it is a city awaiting its hero. Guided by a magic book that can’t quite get its facts straight, and pursued by Hemi the half-ghost boy, the girls set out to stop the poisonous cloud before it burns everything in its path. They are joined in their quest by a motley band of UnLondon locals, including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas, Obaday Fing, a couturier whose head is an enormous pincushion, and an empty milk carton called Curdle.
The world of UnLondon is populated by astonishing frights and delights that will thrill the imagination.
Un Lun Dun is the third of Miéville’s books that I’ve now read, after The City and The City and his latest novel Embassytown. I enjoyed both of these immensely, despite how different they are in comparison to one another. The thing about China Miéville is that every time he writes a new novel, it’s always so completely different to anything else he’s ever written, and although I have a huge amount of respect for him because of it, I’m always suffer a little pang of fear at the thought that I might not enjoy it. To be quite honest, I have no idea why I even experience this fear any more, I think I’ve now learnt to trust him as a writer, to write a damn good story no matter what genre he writes in, or what sort of plot takes shape, because I have as yet to be disappointed.
My fear over Un Lun Dun, which has been written for young adults, was that it sounded very random, almost in the way that Terry Pratchett is known for. Although I can happily sit here in awe of Pratchett’s imagination and the strength of his creativity, I’ve honestly never been much of a fan when it comes to his books, and that’s because I found them too random; too unbelievable. It’s been many years since I last attempted a Pratchett novel, and so I couldn’t tell you what China has done differently to capture my attention, maybe it’s because I’m older now and getting more and more drawn in to the science fiction and fantasy genres, or maybe China really did do something that Pratchett couldn’t manage for me, either way I can honestly say I loved every second of Un Lun Dun.
I didn’t expect to come to love a world where bins have become fighting ninjas, where milk cartons become friends, and giraffes patrol the streets looking for people to eat. This is the world of Un Lun Dun, an alternate version of the London we all know. It is a place where everything thrown away or discarded in our London ends up, and now has the freedom to take on a life of its own. But Un Lun Dun is slowly being taken over by a dirty big black cloud of smoke hovering over the city, known as the Smog, and the only people who can save Un Lun Dun are Londoners Zanna, the chosen one, and her friend and sidekick, Deeba.
What I love about this novel, is the way Miéville almost seems to poke fun at the stereotypical fantasy ‘quest’ stories, like Tolkien for example, who he has often slated quite openly in the past. Zanna is the chosen one, the one who has been prophesised to save Un Lun Dun from the Smog, but this novel doesn’t quite go in the direction you expect it to. The focus ends up on Deeba, the un-chosen one. Deeba may not be in the infamous book of prophecies, she may not be the one the people of Un Lun Dun have been waiting for, but she certainly makes a spectacular heroine and one I came to love like my own friend. She’s your average teenager who isn’t out looking for fame or fortune, she just wants to protect not only her friends and family, but the people of Un Lun Dun who she has come to care about more than she ever thought possible.
Half way through the novel, Deeba is told by the book of prophecies that she must complete seven tasks and collect seven items before she can get the weapon that the Smog is most afraid of. I remember almost groaning at this point, thinking I’m half way through the book, and now a quest is about to begin?! It seemed like such a tedious concept that I almost doubted Miéville for just a second, until his real plan unfolded. When you’re fighting to save a world from the Smog, you don’t have time to complete seven tasks and collect a bunch of pointless objects that seemingly have no real use. Deeba instead, heads straight to the final task – obtaining the weapon to kill the Smog. 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.
With Miéville being a rather openly political person, I think it’s fair to say that this book has a message at its heart. Anyone who knows anything about our world today, will know that our planet is slowly being destroyed by all the fumes we release into our atmosphere, and all the waste we produce and create year after year. The Smog is obviously a representation of what we are doing to our planet.
Please stop reading here if you do not wish to read minor spoilers.
But the fact that the politicians from London are the ones feeding the Smog in Un Lun Dun, the very politicians who are meant to be representing the greener side of life, with pro-active recycling and saving our planet. It seems that Miéville’s view of politicians is not a very positive one – that they are mostly hypocrites who care more about saving their own asses, and making themselves look good, than actually improving the state of our planet and everything they profess to care about. Maybe I’ve read too much into it, and these aren’t Miéville’s views at all, but this is certainly the message I got out of the novel as a whole, and it’s certainly not one I disagree with.
I really cannot recommend this novel enough. It’s a wonderful breath of fresh air not only for the fantasy genre, but for the YA genre as well. It’s a story that is very much relevant to the world we live in today, and one that many children and adults will get something out of, but more important than anything is, it’s fun. It’s perhaps the most fun I’ve had all year whilst reading a book! It’s random, yes, but I still can’t help but be left in awe of Miéville’s imagination, and how he has managed to make so many random objects and characters come together to create something that fits together perfectly.
Un Lun Dun was originally published in April 2007, and reissued with a brand new cover in May 2011 by Pan Macmillan.
To read my review of The City and The City click here.
To read my review of Embassytown click here.
- The Cheltenham Literature Festival 2011 (bookmonkeyscribbles.wordpress.com)
- What the Booker prize really excludes (guardian.co.uk)