Un Lun Dun

Author: China Miéville

Reviewer: Stuart Crawford

You need to read this book. You really do. Un Lun Dun is China Miéville’s first foray into what’s being pushed as “young adult fiction”, and it’s every bit as much essential reading as his previous work (which was never classed as “old adult fiction”, as far as I’m aware).

The story follows two young girls on their perilous adventure through an alternate version of London, one which exists in tandem with (and to an extent, feeds on) the real-world city. This UnLondon is peopled with a staggering variety of bizarre and marvellous creatures, from the terrifying Black Window of Webminster Abbey to the excellent-as-they-sound ninja dustbins, called binja. There’s a lot of this sort of thing.

Miéville’s work is characterised by his relentlessly abundant imagination, and Un Lun Dun is certainly no exception. His descriptions of locations and background characters are mercilessly inventive, and the way he manages to underpin these fantastic settings with pithy realism is nothing short of incredible. Inspiration is drawn from myriad sources: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, Labyrinth and Neverwhere, to name but a few. The bare bones of the plot at first seem rather familiar–the mystical quest of the chosen one, the series of increasingly difficult tasks, the book of prophecies and the final confrontation with evil, but it soon becomes apparent that what’s going on is a lot more subversive.

All of these conventions are promptly turned on their heads. To reveal exactly how would be to ruin the story, but suffice it to say that if you’ve ever thought: “No! What are you doing? Just cut to the chase, idiot!” at a fictional character then you certainly won’t be disappointed here.

The heavy-handed socialist overtones present in Miéville’s other work have been greatly toned down here, but there is a strong theme of environmentalism running through the story. It has a lot in common with Alan Aldridge’s The Gnole, despite being something of an inversion of that tale. The esoteric vocabulary, while also toned down, is still very much in evidence. Younger readers will undoubtedly find Un Lun Dun worthy of re-reading.

This is the sort of book that, if there were any justice, would be flying off the shelves while derivative pap about plucky boy wizards was treated with the derision it deserves. Heartily recommended for all ages.