Date read: 7.17.10
Book from: Personal collection
What is Un Lun Dun? It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up… and some of its people, too – including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion; and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book.
When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong.
Un Lun Dun is basically Neil Gaiman‘s Neverwhere meets The Phantom Tollbooth, and owes debts – some playfully acknowledged in the text itself – to many other classics of children’s and fantasy literature, including A Wrinkle in Time and, of course, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a cleverly crafted and delightful book: Miéville lets loose yet again with his famously phantasmagorical imagination, filling out his alternate London with topsy-turvy architecture (houses constructed of obsolete technology, a ghost town whose buildings constantly flicker through various historical incarnations, a web-cocooned “Webminster Abbey”), a lovingly detailed bestiary, and a vast arsenal of puns (some of my favorites: UnLondon’s sister cities include Parisn’t and Lost Angeles). All of these are complemented by Miéville’s appropriately inky, energetic illustrations. For fans of his adult fiction, there are also plenty of touches of eerie, deeply unsettling dark fantasy, some of which could have come straight out the New Crobuzon books – I couldn’t help feeling that the Black Windows of Webminster Abbey might be lesser cousins of Bas-Lag’s Weavers. With his usual anti-authoritarianism, Miéville also takes a good amount of pleasure in dismantling and inverting the tropes of the fantasy quest, so that we get a very unintended heroine who quite literally refuses to go by the rules of the (talking) book.
For all its delights, though, Un Lun Dun somehow failed to really surprise and engage me. It felt a bit like a themepark ride: there’s plenty to see, but it all goes by rather quickly, and you’re not sure how much it really meant to you at the end of it all. 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. Its pleasures lie more in its ingenuity and dazzling wordplay than in any real emotional connection. I also had a little difficulty with the writing style, which is heavy on short, bluntly declarative sentences. And though I appreciated the plot’s pro-environmental, pro-literacy bent, the messages were shoehorned in a little awkwardly and obviously.
So, like Kakaner, I’m going to have to make a conditional recommendation for this one: try it out if you’re a big Miéville fan, are looking for pure entertainment, or have a younger reader of strong constitution to share it with. I would have loved this so much more had I read it when I was about twelve – too much younger and I think certain scenes might have kept me from sleeping at night, though I would have read them with relish anyway.