China Mieville is the premiere iconoclast of the fantasy genre. Before (or at the same time) that “punk” (as in cyberpunk, splatterpunk and mythpunk) became a common subgenre suffix, Mieville laid out the manifesto of the New Weird movement, a literary movement about subverting fantasy and horror tropes. His work is gritty, urban, political, subversive, disquieting—and adult. His language is baroque—he knows the Oxford English Dictionary and isn’t afraid to use it. Mieville’s imagery borders on the Lovecraftian. And the work is ripe with allusion, from Marxist and gender theory to African literature. (Iron Council, the last of the Bas Lag novels, unabashedly models itself after the late Senegalese filmmaker Sembene Ousmane’s novel God’s Bits of Wood). So it is naturally intriguing to see how Mieville reconciles heady version of fantasy to the young adult novel, in Un Lun Dun.
Mieville has described Un Lun Dun as his answer to the classic children’s story trope, in which kids from our modern world are swept into another world, a la The Wizard of Oz or any of the C.S. Lewis Narnia books. The plot centers on two young teenagers, Zanna (Suzanna) and Deeba in London who begin to notice strange things happening around them, mostly focusing on the tall, blonde Zanna. Animals look at her strangely, and a strange mist follows them around. One night, Zanna and Deeba follow a strange sight—a broken umbrella that moves—to an abandoned basement. As if compelled by something else, Zanna turns a valve. When the girls step outside of the basement, they find themselves in a skewed parallel world version of London, called Unlundun.
It’s a fabulous and scary place. Houses are built of abandoned technology, like old LPs and radios, ghosts walk the street, buses fly and a host of strange creatures, including carnivorous giraffes and giant flies. It’s a colorful place, anachronistic, magical and steampunk at once. Westminster Abbey and the London Eye and Thames appear in the city in altered forms. Mieville’s playfulness and love of puns—and extensive knowledge of London are displayed here. Thus, there is a Webminster Abbey, and the river Smeath. Unlundun is overseen by the Propheseers, an august group of prophets who live on a floating bridge, and the girls find themselves embroiled in a complex plot in which an ancient enemy, a sentient cloud of pollution called the Smog, is trying to take over the city. Zanna is the Chosen One, as the talking book of prophecies explains, and she has a Quest, one which defeat the evil smog and its minions.
Just as the reader is about to settle down into a comfortably familiar quest story in a strange land, Mieville completely flips the script. Without being too spoiler-y, Zanna, the mythic chosen one, is taken out of the action, and in her place is Deeba, who much assume the role of Chosen One, even though she isn’t in the book (and which the book goes to great lengths to explain). Deeba, a resourceful young lady of Pakistani ancestry, also discovers an even more insidious plot of the Smog which involves an MP in our world’s version of London.
Un Lun Dun is a noble experiment, but it falls short of being excellent. While Un Lun Dun is full of invention and humorous games with language—literally living words are among the book’s pleasures—there is a lack of depth. The Bas-Lag novels revel in their linguistic richness, but Un Lun Dun is artificial vanilla pudding to those novels crème brulee. In writing for younger readers, he’s stripped back too much of what made those books so powerful, and consequently doesn’t play to his strengths. The novel is also didactic, a weakness that Mieville showed in Iron Council. There’s an obvious environmental theme running through the narrative that kind of hits the reader over the head. The book was also a bit overlong, and the characters, save for Deeba and the half-wraith boy Hemi. But these are mere quibbles. The subversive imagination more than makes up for the shortcomings. Mieville’s narrative manages to both parody and homage quest fiction. There’s tons of whimsy, combined with some truly horrific set pieces—including deaths and the humans possessed by the Smog, called Stink-Junkies and Smombies. It’s these tidal shifts in tons that make Un Lun Dun as much a part of Mieville’s trademark New Weird ethos as anything he’s written before. Finally, a note about the line drawings the author provides–they are a suitably quirky nod to illustrated fiction that capture the creepy and funny vibe of the novel.
The novel is written for younger readers, and if I were twelve years old, I’d gobble it up. It’s a perfect antidote (or companion?)t Harry Pottermania—a young adult book that is downright cool. Maybe you can call it YA-punk.