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March 5, 2007

Filed under: fiction»reviews»mieville

Book review: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

There must be a certain point in time when good SF and fantasy authors decide that they want to write children's fiction. Neil Gaiman, although not setting adult fiction aside completely, seemed to revive the trend in recent memory when he penned Coraline. Now one of my favorite authors, China Mieville, has written his own story for younger minds, Un Lun Dun. It's an interesting read, and I think I would recommend it to the target audience, but adult readers might want to pick it up at the library instead.

Mieville's previous books were mostly set in the bizarre world of Bas-Lag, specifically the city of New Crobuzon. Bas-Lag is a fantasy setting undergoing its industrial ages, instead of the gentle feudalism of most genre fiction, and it's influenced heavily by Mieville's Marxism. The books are also known for being grotesque and a little sadistic, or at the very least, grimy. For these reasons, it's hard to imagine him producing stereotypically saccharine children's literature. So while Un Lun Dun (pronounced so that each syllable rhymes with "run") does not reach the freakshow proportions of Perdido Street Station's man-on-insect-woman sex scenes or The Scar's self-mutilating Lovers, it's still not tame and lifeless. I thought it most resembled Alice in Wonderland, which is far more disturbing than those who have only seen the Disney sanitization think. And if he has reined in his more destructive impulses, Mieville has at least tried to redirect them toward an ever-escalating tour of oddities.

Un Lun Dun is about two girls, Zanna and Deeba, who find their way from London to an alternate reality, where Zanna is regarded as a chosen one who will banish the evil Smog by undertaking a quest across its surrealistic landscape. If this sounds cliched, don't be surprised. Mieville has consciously aimed this book at the Harry Potter-esque subgenre of wish-fulfillment fiction. He's aware that for most fantasy (adult or child), the main character basically serves as a Mary Sue, Potter included. Un Lun Dun explicitly takes aim at this hackneyed genre staple, as well as the helpful animal sidekick (replaced here with a milk carton named Curdle), the unhealthy reliance on tradition or authority, and reliance on story "tokens" to get characters out of a pinch.

In fact, Mieville actually has his sights set higher than just the genre. There are clear references, sometimes without even an attempt at disguise, to real-world events in the book. Without spoiling it, I can say that he's making a point about the Orwellian language that's been used by both governments and corporations to disguise their real actions. All I can say is that I warned you: the guy's a full-fledged Marxist and he doesn't care if you know it. I felt like it was a little unsubtle at the time, but looking back toward the end of the book, I can appreciate what Mieville's done in more context. Children's fiction is rarely subtle or subversive. By going against the grain, the end result is not a bad book, and depending on the audience, might even be a very good one.

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