UnLondon is an abcity, an alternate London where all the forgotten things from our world go. When schoolgirl Zanna begins to attract an unwanted level of reverent attention from wild animals, bus drivers and, even, clouds in the sky, she and her friend Deeba find their way to UnLondon, where they discover the city is awaiting the coming of the Shwazzy, the chosen one who will defeat the malevolent, sentient Smog, as foretold by the (speaking) Book of the Propheseers. But Deeba (who is, it turns out, the real hero of Un Lun Dun) soon learns that not all things go according to prophecy.
This is China Miéville’s first book for Young Adults, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an author jumping on the current YA bandwagon (as he says in a recent Guardian interview, “I’ve been accruing image capital for a younger book for a long time and then I coagulated it”). What made it so readable for me was the constant level and quality of invention. Almost every one of its 520 pages brings at least one fantastic image or witty idea, sparking off little scintillations of the sort of pleasure only fantasy can give: unbrellas and other animate pieces of rubbish dragging themselves through back alleys, fireproof red squirrels climbing the November Tree which blooms like a firework explosion every 5th of that month, killer giraffes, a forest in a house, the frightening arachnids of Webminster Abbey… Best of all, these aren’t just throwaway ideas providing a glamour of invention, but are often meaningfully (and ingeniously) integrated into the plot.
The story itself doesn’t disappoint. Readers already familiar with fantasy literature will appreciate Miéville’s revisionary riffing on the cliché of the Chosen One, the prophesied hero whose destiny it is to defeat the Dark Enemy, which often leaves you wondering if there was any actual danger at all. (This isn’t to dismiss the idea of destiny in fantasy altogether — every child is, after all, biologically destined to grow into an adult, and so, at that point in their lives, can often feel in the grip of destiny-like forces beyond their control. Once you’re an adult, free will generally returns and you can do your best to forget, for a good few years, all about that other destined event — you know, the one that goes hand-in-hand with taxes.)
The other great cliché of fantasy doorstop series (Un Lun Dun is a standalone book which, unlike so many other fantasies, has the grace to finish, within the same covers, the story it begins), the quest to find x-number of meaningless “key” items so as to gain a magical weapon (best relegated to fantasy games, where at least it’s fun), is also neatly handled by Miéville’s stuck-for-time heroine. The UnGun she finally gains has got to be one of the best fantasy weapons out there, both in terms of power, and the fun it contributes to the plot. (How do you defeat a monster made of animate fruit?)
Written in a clear, up-to-date (though not slangy) language that will appeal to kids (while still offering the occasional stylistic diamond, my favourite being: “It laughed again, with a noise like a sack of dead animals being dragged across coal and broken glass”) and illustrated by the author himself, Un Lun Dun is a hugely enjoyable book, certainly for not-so-Y, not-so-A’s like myself.