With Un Lun Dun, I'd happily declare "China Miéville is back!", were it not for the fact that the likely response among my readers would be that half of you would insist he never went anywhere, while the other would shrug and say he'd never arrived in the first place.
Miéville has become one of modern fantasy's truly polarizing, love-him-or-loathe-him writers. I've done a bit of both. I'll go to my grave declaring my undying love for the nightmarishly phantastical Perdido Street Station and its evil twin, The Scar. But his third Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council, showed the undeniable signs of too many trips to the same well. Where Miéville had once dazzled with his Boschian landscapes and baffling cryptozoological oddities, he was now looking very much like a one-trick pony, and a hobbled one at that.
Un Lun Dun has Miéville doing what he should have done instead of writing Iron Council: taking a breather from Bas-Lag. On the surface, what he's come up with here doesn't look too dissimilar. We're in another dada fantasy world, where buildings get up and walk around, plants wear dresses, umbrellas fly, and busses move on lizard feet. The difference is that Un Lun Dun is a young adult novel. You heard me right. And in writing his first YA, Miéville's darkly fertile imagination has been considerably refreshed by a self-aware and even self-effacing sense of humor, and a whimsical approach to the material we've only seen from him in snatches before. I never thought I'd use this adjective to describe a Miéville book, but Un Lun Dun is often — dare I say it? — a...delight!? Even...a romp!? In other news, Hell reports ice floes.
For his plot, Miéville grabs onto the most recycled YA fantasy formula there is — spunky child from our world is transported to another one, where she learns she is their prophesied savior — then proceeds to suborn it at every turn. This is a tale where the putative hero is sidelined before the story's even begun, and the loyal sidekick gets her shining moment. Would Rowling ever have put Harry Potter out of commission in chapter one, leaving Ron or Hermoine to take on Voldemort alone? And how about a story in which, once all the crucial prophecies have been decisively debunked, the book containing said prophecies spends the rest of the story manically depressed? This is funny stuff, and it comes at you straight from left field.
Un Lun Dun is ideally crafted for its target readership — teens who've done the Potter thing and are looking for something edgier — and in its best scenes, it just plain rocks the house. But it takes about fifty pages or so for Miéville to warm to his material. Strange things are happening to London schoolgirl Zanna Moon. Animals approach her and bow reverently, while perfect strangers speak to her like she's royalty, and call her by the curious name of "Shwazzy." It isn't until French class that the name's apparent meaning seems clear — choisi: "chosen."
With her best friend Deeba Resham, Zanna finds a portal in their block of flats that takes them to UnLondon, a dreamlike, alternate version of their city, populated by the curious menagerie described above. UnLondon is in trouble. A malevolent smog, pumped over from our world, threatens to blanket the city, swallowing up all life in its path. Zanna's arrival causes much excitement. The Shwazzy has come, and many UnLondoners believe their salvation is at hand. This jubilation doesn't last long. In her first real confrontation with the smog, Zanna is promptly TKO'd. Now if anyone is to save UnLondon, it must be Deeba. But she isn't the Shwazzy, and has no clue what to do. All she can think of is that she'll simply have to undertake the tasks meant for the Shwazzy and hope for the best. Can there be any hope of success, when all the prophecies leading up to this conflict have clearly been wrong, and there are hints of traitors among those who claim to be UnLondon's defenders, and Deeba's trusted allies? How can a 12-year-old girl rally an entire city to its own defense when it appears their very own leaders are lying to them?
So what we've got, beneath the surreal art direction, is a Roald Dahl-ish trek through the syllabus of Good Vs Evil 101. Readers need not fear that Miéville has gone simple for all that. While Bas-Lag may be a world in which the very idea of moral clarity is as alien as most of its denizens, UnLondon isn't exactly clothed in convenient shades of black and white either. Outspoken socialist Miéville can't resist a little political commentary, and we see official incompetence and corruption right to the top of UnLondon's leadership, a textbook bureaucracy calling themselves the Propheseers. There is also a War on Terror subtext to the battle against the smog, with many in positions of power deliberately exploiting fear to shore up that power, while others seek to appease and curry favor with, rather than fight, an implacable foe.
Now, it does become clear that Miéville's tinkering with formula isn't quite as seditious as early chapters might lead you to believe. Though assigned the role of "funny sidekick," Deeba nonetheless quickly settles right into the Campbellian thousand-faced hero persona by way of the "And a child shall lead them" school. But a lot of young adult stories rely on archetypes, and there's nothing artistically illegitimate in doing so, as long as the story you deliver is hearty entertainment. Which Un Lun Dun, happily, is. And Miéville has a character offer a refreshing observation to the effect that there's nothing particularly impressive about a hero if it's what a person was predestined to be. Real heroism comes from real people rising to the occasion. Only fools wait around for saviors. It's a far, far better thing for Deeba to be the Unchosen One. The decisions she makes, and the personal growth she experiences, are infinitely stronger ingredients for heroism than simply to play a part in a drama where one's duties are spelled out by convention.
Un Lun Dun has some of Miéville's most appealing supporting characters, sprung from the wackiest flights of fancy he can conjure. Can your hero use a courageous pet to help her get out of jams while giving her (and readers) an outlet for affection? Well then, why go with a boring cat or dog when you can have a brave little...milk carton! And as for scary monsters, the Black Windows are simply spectacular. A lot of the pleasure in turning the pages here is simply to see what China comes up with next.
Like the megabudget summer movie its story often resembles, Un Lun Dun eventually brings us to a rather bombastic and unwieldy climax, followed by a protracted dénouement. Yet it resolves in a satisfying and suspenseful way, particularly in that Miéville has dropped us an extremely subtle clue earlier on, then misdirected us so that we'll intentionally ignore it. Yes, China's storytelling magic is still there. Who'd'a thunk that all he needed to captivate us with it once again was a trip into his inner child?