{book} Un Lun Dun

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The author writes an anti-Alice, a shorter, rounder, less kempt, darker, and cleverer protagonist; titles a chapter with “despotic logorrhea;” and uses the word “pluperfect.” Need I say more? Possibly, because I haven’t yet gotten to the flesh-eating giraffes and I know you will want to read a story involving those.

With Christmas-money to burn, Natalya heads to the book store and we stayed a smidge too long. This is how we managed to browse the shelves and noticed a juvenile fiction with China Mieville’s name on it. He is an author I already  planned to read this year, so curious, I skimmed the jacket copy. I handed it to the daughter, she read, eyes widening at the same places. She added it to her armload.* The key phrases? I will underline them below:

What is Un Lun Dun? It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights 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. ~publisher’s comments/ back copy

Natalya inhaled the read, and challenged me to read it as quickly because she was dying to talk about it. Just so you know, you have about 5 hours to read it. The action-sequences make it easy, that and Mieville does not linger in characterization. N notes [paraphrasing]: he doesn’t spend a lot of time inside the character, even the protagonists. You learn everything you need to make the connection, to known them, as you go: via dialog, external reactions, actions. He doesn’t set aside paragraphs for setting and emotional content. It comes, it is effortless and moving. If you read enough juvenile fiction, you know how remarkable this is to an avid Reader like N.

Told in 3rd person limited, or “3rd person bias” as Sean likes to call it, Un Lun Dun  follows the protagonist around. You get some internal dialog as it pertains, as it deliberates, but the novel is comparatively spare–all around; and to be fair, it has enough highly-imaginative element, we could hardly stand tangents or long prose and decorous segues. Entertainment Weekly  writes (upon the back cover) “Mieville fills his enthralling fantasy with enough plot twists and wordplay for an entire trilogy.” Un Lun Dun writes a complete adventure in one novel. Sure we could want more, but upon finishing you realize: how refreshing, how deft, how brilliant. Mieville transports the reader to this strange place, un-does, un-expects, creates the emotional connections and drama/suspense, while spinning wholly imaginative characters and spaces. The End.

Un Lun Dun interrogates Quests, Prophecies, Tasks, & the traditional Hero. It is humorously irreverent about it, and I couldn’t help but cheer. What more can I say without spoiling the lovely twisty-ness…? I can’t.

Mieville plays with form—-formula and format. I liked his use of colons, and his 5-word chapter with the six word title (chapter 33). I like the dashes (–) to pull the sentence into the next chapter. The Parts, named and numbered, aren’t arbitrary (are encapsulating), but aren’t limited. Mieville isn’t limited, nor is he arbitrary; which is important to know. When he is up-ending, un-doing, un-expecting, he is being delightful, yes, but he isn’t playing out of ignorance. I never felt like he wasn’t intimately familiar with his arguments, his scope. At first I was worried that he was being outlandish for the sake of being bizarre, but threads do pull through, elements find relevance.

Literary references are used humorously and as thickener. Natalya can speak to how clever Un Lun Dun, in obvious and more obscured ways, called to mind Through the Looking Glass. How it played with, argued with, and paid homage to it. Un Lun Dun is most certainly for lovers of words, and bibliophiles. But it isn’t only for the Reader but for all readers as there are the pop-cultural references. We are all familiar with the slight of not only being relegated to the “sidekick,” but feel Deeba’s teeth-gritting anger at being designated “the funny sidekick.” “What about Digby? What about Ron and Robin? There’s no shame in–” yeah, Book was cut off for a reason. Deeba as Ron to Zanna’s Harry, she didn’t even rate Hermione (which would be Kath). References, context, connection—without the hand-holding.

Un Lun Dun is one for lovers of classic and darkly-tinted adventures and those who would love said adventures; it is playful and inventive in ways that compel and delight; it will make you laugh; it will surprise you. It is one to own and share. You’ve five hours.

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recommendation: for fans of Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Phantom Tollbooth, Neverwhere, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, May Bird, and Doctor Who. “for lovers of words, and bibliophiles;” boys and girls, avid or no; ages 8 & up; for those interested in non-traditional, non-white protagonists and subversion. An easy eco-critical text with a nice jab at corporate and governmental subterfuge.

of note: Mieville provides a glossary to bridge British English and American English translations; the Reader will still need use of a greater dictionary.

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*our book budget is fairly non-existent. we rarely buy anything we haven’t read and adored completely, whether it be actual volume, the author, or w/in a series; i.e. we were there to purchase the latest Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi and book 9 of John Flanagan’s The Ranger’s Apprentice series.

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Un Lun Dun written/illustrated by China Mieville : Del Rey, 2007. 471 pages, tradepaper.

{images: 1. US Cover. 2. Mr. Speaker by China Mieville. 3. Binja by China Mieville}

10 Comments Add yours

  1. ibeeeg says:

    Incredibly fantastic! This book definitely seems like one for Elliana, AND for me. with my book manifesto for 2012, I need to be very picky about which book is purchased – only 12 for the year for myself. This one is going on the list for purchase consideration.

    Side note – I have read the first seven books of Ranger’s Apprentice. I really like that series, but somehow the books got away from me. Is the series up to book 9 (US released)?

    1. L says:

      give it a read and see how you and Elliana enjoy it.

      Flanagan is up to book 11!! actually, book 10. 11 is the Lost Stories (shorts). And then he just launched a spin-off with characters from Skandia: The Outcasts (The Brotherhood Chronicles, book1)–which looks good. All US. I need to catch up, I’m still at book 3. 🙂

  2. Grace says:

    I haven’t read anything by this author, but I’ve heard good things. Now I’m curious, and may end up having to read this!

    1. L says:

      I think it will likely be one of the most accessible books with which to begin. I am debating between Embassytown and Kraken as my next foray with this author.

  3. Carl V. says:

    Un Lun Dun was to be my first Mieville, but it didn’t end up working out that way. There was just something about his writing style that irked me as I read through it and I finally reached a point where I realized that I was not enjoying the story because I was too busy being dazzled at times by real brilliance and annoyed by what felt like poor writing. It has been sooo long that I have no good examples and were I to pick it up today I might feel wildly different.

    I have yet to finish a Mieville book, but this is the only one I put down because I wasn’t enjoying it. I liked The City & the City but waited too long and had to get it to the library. And I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Kraken thus far. So I don’t think, or at least I hope, it is just his bizarre style that puts me off. After all authors like Jeff Vandermeer have a really bizarre style and I just lap it up. There was just something jarring about the alternating quality of writing “I” was experiencing when reading “Un Lun Dun”.

    I’ve been told that I’m crazy, and it is probably right. This is the kind of book that seems tailor made for me but that I just didn’t connect with. I want to, and maybe after I’ve had a successful experience with another of China’s books I’ll be more curious and open-minded about it.

    1. L says:

      Logan mentioned Mieville’s polarizing effect. I can see what you are talking about.

  4. tuulenhaiven says:

    Carl V.’s reaction to Un Lun Dun was my initial reaction – I started it once several years ago and just did not jive with it. Then I tried it again more recently and loved it. Don’t know what was different. Glad you liked it – such a kaleidoscope!

  5. Huzzah! And short, to boot. Alas, as it wasn’t on the 2012 TBR List, I can’t spare the 5-hrs until next year. I guess I’ll see whether or not I make it to Mieville this year, and if so, whether or not I like his style. Your review definitely paints it as one I would enjoy.

    (BTW, I still like this new layout, especially the way text-blocks and images are arranged. Good stuff.)

  6. Kailana says:

    It took me a couple tries to get into this book, but once I did I enjoyed the reading. I really must read more by him in the not so distant future because I have enjoyed what I have read.

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