"Un Lun Dun" (Amazon: UK, US)
by CHINA MIÉVILLE
Format: Paperback, 528/496 pages
Publisher: Pan Books/Del Rey (February 1, 2008/January 29, 2008)
Un Lun Dun was recommended to me as a book I'd surely love, since it was 'a lot like Alice in Wonderland'. The part about me loving Un Lun Dun was completely right, the one about it being similar to Alice less so – there's so much more to Un Lun Dun than that. It's definitely a YA book, a very good one on top of that, and the illustrations are adorable, adding to the experience - but the book is written with so much imagination that you don't really need them.
Deeba and Zanna are best friends, who have lately noticed some very strange things going on around Zanna. When one night Zanna sleeps over at Deeba’s, they are awoken by a strange sound coming from outside. It turns out to be a broken umbrella, and when they follow it, they stumble straight into the strange world of UnLondon, made of garbage and facing a severe threat, an enemy named Smog. It was prophesied that Zanna is the Shwazzy, a hero who will save UnLondon, but things go badly wrong and the girls get sent back home. Zanna has no recollection of events in UnLondon whatsoever, so Deeba, still determined to stop Smog, decides to take things in her own hands – but she only has a limited number of days before everybody in London forget she ever existed.
At first, I had some suspicions that the morale of the story will be something about saving the environment, which would make the book a very annoying read (I don't like a too obvious morale to the story, be it on environment, family ties or respect to other people), so I was very relieved to find out that all the garbage in UnLondon plays a much simpler role – it makes a great setting for the story. The idea of a garbage world (or even better, an un-world) struck my imagination like a lit match strikes a barrel of gas. I was totally intrigued by the whole idea and I guess I even got carried away a bit – I imagined a dark, wicked place, a lost and morbid city instead of just, well, a garbage one, which (despite everything) never gets really scary or dark - Un Lun Dun is a YA novel and my imagined city could not exist in it by default. UnLondon makes for a fine substitute, though – it’s a place made with obvious precision and leaves more than enough space for a reader’s imagination to go rampant, being filled with wonders (mostly made of garbage) and a unique set of various characters. It is clear that MIÉVILLE is a master writer who enjoys his language – a lot of the aforementioned characters are, in fact, puns and various wordplays brought to life. Others are no less imaginative; my favourite was Curdle, a little carton of milk, which Deeba adopts as a kind of pet. It bothered me, though, that he was left forgotten at times – there were long spans of pages without him showing up at all.
The plot was no less enjoyable than the setting and the characters. I especially appreciated the fact that Mieville does not underestimate his (young) readers – the plot is far from naive, without major, unconvincing holes that too often appear in YA novels. It’s basically about The Chosen One’s best friend, which is uncommon enough, since we all too often get a tale of how The Chosen One saved the day (and, usually, also the known world) with a little help from a selfless best friend. While Deeba remains a bit idealised, she is still a far more realistic and plausible character than the heroes we usually meet in aforementioned tales. She doesn’t play by the rules – she starts her ‘quest’ right at its end and learns that saving the world is much harder – but not impossible – when people know you’re not the hero destined to help them.
Overall, Un Lun Dun is one of the best YA books I’ve ever read, including the ones I’ve read as a kid. In fact, I’m a bit sorry that I couldn’t read it when I was twelve or so, since I’m pretty sure I would adore it and sympathise with Deeba far easier than I do now. I’m content that I got to read it at all, though – it is a great book, and (as said before) perfect for people whose imagination runs on the wild side, regardless of their age.