Book Review: “Un Lun Dun”

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Title: Un Lun Dun
Author: China Miéville
Genre: Young Adult / Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication Date: February 13, 2007
Paperback: 432 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book? No, but we’d blend in seamlessly in UnLondon.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for awhile but it never seemed like the right time. I don’t know whether to be happy that I waited until now because it was blatantly the right time or upset that I waited this long because any time would have been the right time.

I honestly don’t know why I put it off for so long. Perhaps my hesitation was fueled by my uncertainty over how to pronounce the title. I always wondered if it was a long “u” (“Oon Loon Doon”) or a short “u” (“Uhnn Luhnn Duhnn”) and it bothered me that I didn’t know. I suppose it also might have had something to do with the cover art. It’s not really my aesthetic. When my boyfriend saw the book lying on the arm of my reading chair, he said, “What’s this? Manga?” I looked at him, appalled. I guess what I’m trying to say is, “Don’t judge this book by its cover” – and don’t judge the book by the author’s cover (i.e. his appearance) either. If I ever host a tea party with a guest list that follows the theme “Authors Who Look Like Assholes,” China Miéville will be invited right along with Myla Goldberg:

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Anyway, down to the nitty-gritty. The nitty-gritty is really weird and hard to explain but I’ll do my best. Un Lun Dun is a story set in an alternate-version of London, a place called “UnLondon” (this should clear up any confusion over how to pronounce the title). Most of what makes up UnLondon is “moil,” which stands for “Mildly Obsolete in London.” The population uses outdated currency, many of their homes are hodgepodge towers made up of old appliances (things like record players, typewriters, and black & white television sets) all leaned up against each other, and they travel by double-decker buses manned by both drivers and conductors. The people who live in UnLondon are also “outdated”, in a manner of speaking, or past their “expiration dates.” They’re ghosts. If they aren’t ghosts, they’re people who came to feel unneeded or unwanted in regular London. People and things that lose their place in the world just sort of “seep over” into UnLondon. There are also native creatures who’ve never existed in London to begin with (feral, evil giraffes; animate trash; diving suits given consciousness by very organized schools of fish; you know, the usual).

UnLondon is in trouble. There’s a growing dark power in the city, known as “The Smog” which is basically sentient pollution. The Smog is staging a hostile takeover and residents are thrown into a civil war between those who are brave enough to stand against it, and those who are too cowardly, too confused, or too greedy to risk it. The Smog is rendering vast areas of the city unlivable; turning people into addicts who can’t get enough of its foul, poisonous stench (these people end up with gas masks and tubes fused to their faces which feed them a constant supply of the vapors); or, it kills them and inhabits their rotting corpses, turning them into “Smombies.” There’s an age-old prophecy in UnLondon which says that a human girl, known as “The Chosen One” or “the Schwazzy” (coming from the French, “choisi”), is the only one who can defeat the Smog and save the city. When the Schwazzy, a tall blonde girl named Zanna (short for Suzanna), finds her way into UnLondon with her best friend Deeba, things don’t go quite as expected. I know that’s vague but it’s purposely vague. There’s a twist that happens early on that I’d like to keep shrouded in mystery. All you’ve got to know is that there’s a crazy city, a weird villain, a girl, and a quest.

What Made the Story Totally Worth Eating:

1. It was like a tasty combination of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hocus Pocus, and Ferngully.

Like Buffy, Zanna’s a blonde girl with a silly, disyllabic name, who suddenly finds out that she’s “The Chosen One.” She alone can rid the unworld of Black Windows, Smombies, and the Forces of Darkness. Admittedly, Zanna is notably tall and Sarah Michelle Gellar is notably untall, standing at a diminutive height of 5’3 (yeah, I knew that off-hand), but the similarities are still striking. I even think Buffy would’ve preferred the term “Schwazzy” over “Slayer” if she’d known it was an option. It takes away that nasty “killer” vibe and replaces it with something that sounds like “pizzazz.” As someone who wore mini-skirts, combat boots, baggy overalls, a baby blue trench coat, giraffe-patterned pants, chokers, and butterfly clips, I think Buffy would’ve appreciated that.


                   giraffe pantsbuffy tie dye
                                                                             “Damn, that Schwazzy’s got pizzaz-y!”

Aside from the girl-power thing, though, there was something about the language and the way the characters talked that made me feel like I was in my treasured Buffyverse. It certainly wasn’t the British slang (Giles was the only Brit on the show and he didn’t use slang; he wore tweed. I don’t think Wesley used it either but even if he did, he hardly counts). No, even though it’s been yonks since Buffy was on the air, I’d have to be a nutter to think it was that. I think it had more to do with how the characters in each share a total disregard for the way parts of speech normally operate. For instance, when Zanna makes fun of the name Deeba chooses for her pet, Deeba says playfully, “Oh shut up… Just get on with being Schwazzed, will you?” (49).
And later:

“‘What was that?’ whispered Deeba.
‘How should I know?’ Zanna whispered back.
‘Well I’m not Schwazzed. You know everything, Schwazzy. Schwa me what you can do.’
‘Shut up,’ said Zanna.
Schwat up yourself.’
Zanna couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculous riposte” (68).

Suddenly, a static noun fluidly becomes a verb. Buffy frequently used the same technique. In the show’s pilot episode, “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” Giles tries to explain to Buffy why her presence is needed. He warns her, “Something is coming! Something is going to happen here soon.” She responds, “Gee, can you vague that up for me?” Nouns don’t remain nouns; adjectives don’t remain adjectives. I could go on forever. I won’t. I really want to write a whole slew of papers, though, comparing BTVS and Un Lun Dun. I’m sure I can find a nerdy journal to try to get them published in. I can see my best idea in print now, complete with working title, “Chosen, Unchosen, Deconstructed, and Redistributed: Power Plays in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Un Lun Dun.” Presentation by a Pooka coming soon to a Con near you! 

Moving on, the book also smacks of Hocus Pocus. It’s got nothing to do with Salem, or witches, and none of the characters are named Thackery Binks (sadly). But there is a sentient Book. Oh, BooooOOoooOOooK!

tumblr_mck7d1DxdH1rodl1qo1_500spellbook
And finally, there are the two near-identical villains of Un Lun Dun and Ferngully (Smog & Hexxus), respectively:

smoghexxus

It’s a little sad that all three of the works that Un Lun Dun resembles have kick-ass musical numbers and only the book is lacking. I think there’s only one way to resolve the issue: Joss Whedon and China Miéville must work together to transition the book to film. I can’t promise that I wouldn’t geek out and pee my giraffe-patterned pants that I’d obviously be wearing in homage to the premiere. (It’s difficult for rabbit-shaped pookas to wear pants but I’d make the effort for such a momentous occasion). I was so blown-away by the similarities of the first pairing that I was compelled to look up whether Miéville intended the comparison. I didn’t find anything saying so, but I did find a quote from Miéville in this interview, in which he says “I feel like [Joss Whedon] likes me and loves me and is on some cultural level my brother and comrade.” Keep your fingers crossed for the most geektastic of partnerships.

2. It’s a book lover’s book.

Un Lun Dun not only feels like a tribute to pop culture but to high culture as well. Miéville makes multiple references to Melville (Moby Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener), Shakespeare (Hamlet), Maya Angelou (“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”), and I swear there’s even a subtle nod to James Joyce’s “Dubliners.” Most of the allusions are pretty heavy-handed but they’re done for the sake of humor. For example, there’s a character who has a human body and a birdcage with a bird in it for a head. His name is Yorick, which is also the name of the man whose skull Hamlet holds when he delivers his famous soliloquy. So the character’s named for the only thing he lacks: a head. There’s a one-liner about this same character later on. Miéville writes, “The caged bird sang” (257). I think my favorite joke, though, is from a librarian. She works at the Wordhoard Pit, which is a gigantic tower of books, stretching up into the sky and delving deep into the ground. She explains that its shelves hold “everything that’s ever been written or lost” (157). She tells Deeba the story of a particularly taxing expedition, in which she “was in a group looking for a book someone had requested.” The book’s title is the best thing ever. “I remember” she says, “it was called ‘Oh All Right Then’: Bartleby Returns” (157). I lost my shit. This actually brings us nicely to the third reason Un Lun Dun was totally worth eating.

3. It provided me with a new career goal.

The woman who makes the hilarious Bartleby reference is named Marguerite Staples. I already noted that she works at the Wordhoard Pit and I explained briefly what that was, but I didn’t explain quite how special the Pit is. The height and depth of the tower probably isn’t what you’re imagining. It isn’t as big as, say, a skyscraper. It really soars and tunnels. In order to retrieve books on the lower shelves, the librarians would have to tether themselves to one another and prepare as if they were climbing a mountain. Finding a book in the Abyss could take weeks. The librarians have to pack provisions, and if you run out of food then you’re left to hunt and feed off of “shelf monkeys” (157). It requires daring and derring-do: a healthy sense of adventure. (I’m not saying that I’d want to spend weeks tethered to every co-worker I have the pleasure of spending time with in my current position, but I think if this were the job description it would attract a different caliber of people). The official job title of those who work at the Wordhoard Pit is “extreme librarian” or “bookaneer.” Oh, and did I mention that the tower also serves as a connection between worlds? Presumably, one can go to any library in the world or unworld, climb the tallest shelf to the top, keep climbing without looking back, and make it to the Pit. It’s magic, like every library shelf should be.

4. The wordplay was wonderful.

I think I need only to list the other abcities (UnLondon is an “abcity,” which is a great word in itself – “ab” like “absence,” they’re not “really there” like London is there… “there’s no there there”, and “abc” like the beginning of the alphabet) to show what I mean:

  • Parisn’t
  • Lost Angeles
  • No York
  • Hong Gone
  • Baghdidn’t
  • Sans Francisco

Just wonderful. There’s also a telephone (one telephone in the whole of UnLondon) that’s located in the middle of a maze. The maze is called “The Blabyrinth.”

5. It’s illustrated.

Yeah, there are pictures. I haven’t even mentioned that yet and there’s so much more that I’m not going to mention because this post is already kilometers long. But I love illustrated novels and am always impressed when the author’s the one doing the illustrating. That’s the case with Un Lun Dun and the pictures are as funny, frightening and clever as the text. Remember those feral, evil giraffes I mentioned? Here’s what they look like:

giraffeThere are so many more things about this book that I love. I’ve not gone into my passionate feelings on the Utterlings (little creatures that are word made flesh, whose bodies are the physical incarnation of the sounds of the words), or about how working-man Jones rails against the unfairness of the Establishment (Damn The Man! Save the UnEmpire!). I need to leave it to you, though, and trust that you will be moved to read Un Lun Dun yourself, and that you will independently come to love everything I’ve mentioned and haven’t mentioned. You’ve got eyes and a brain and a heart and a funny bone, just like me, just like Miéville (& just like Joss).

What I Spit Back Out:

1. Sometimes Miéville was redundant. 

I feel like a traitorous backstabber for even mentioning this considering how much I loved everything else, but I suppose I’ve got to support my disloyal claims with text. Miéville has Jones say, “Not that easy. Believe me. I had to try for years…It would be lovely if you did, believe me” (120). Jones’ insistence upon being believed almost makes you doubt his earnestness but there’s no reason to; it’s just coincidentally repetitive. Fortunately, these instances were scarce and they’re no reason not to read the book or to dislike it.

There was so much complexity to Un Lun Dun. It was playful and serious, creative and allusive. Its message, which I also can’t reveal because the message reveals that primary plot twist, is an important one. I suppose there are people who wouldn’t like the book. In fact, I know there are people who wouldn’t like it and that makes me sad- it is, undoubtedly, weird. But I know there aren’t any pookas who wouldn’t like it. We’re weird by nature. I know I’ll re-read this book in the future (I have to write all of those papers!) and I’ll be checking out some other stuff by Miéville, too. Next on the list? Railsea. It’s supposed to be like Moby Dick except with a giant white mole that travels beneath cities. How could I resist?

Pooka Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Nibbles

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About pookapicks

I'm a 20-something gal working in Children's Library Services. My likes include googly eyes, coffee, magical realism, leading Story Hours, and forcing my taste in books down people's throats. I have a pet rabbit named Moxie Crimefighter.
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7 Responses to Book Review: “Un Lun Dun”

  1. megann31 says:

    This sounds preferable to “Neverwhere.” Which would be good for me. I also like when nouns become verbs.

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