China Miéville has become known for his genre-defying work, but to some extent many of his novels embrace a specific genre. As much as Iron Council is a western and The City & The City is a police procedural, Un Lun Dun is a young adult urban fantasy. Of course, with Miéville, these sorts of distinctions are usually just amusing starting points before readers revel in genre twists and unusual monsters.
Zanna is not a monster. In fact, Zanna was just another schoolgirl in London until she discovered Un Lun Dun — London’s fantasy mirror world. Sadly, things aren’t going very well in Un Lun Dun: horrifying Smog threatens to destroy the entire city. Fortunately, it turns out that Zanna isn’t just a schoolgirl after all. She’s the “Shwazzy,” or chosen one. When she first battles the Smog, she miraculously summons a wind to battle it.
Most fantasy readers should have an idea of what usually comes next. Cue the moments of confusion, denial, acceptance, and righteous heroism. Since this is a young adult fantasy, we should see a love triangle as well. This is where Miéville dubs Un Lun Dun a part of his canon.
Zanna doesn’t do any of those things. In fact, she is defeated and returns to London without any memory of her destiny. Instead, it falls on Deeba to defeat the Smog and save Un Lun Dun. She’s… the UnChosen one.
It’s a ploy that confounds expectations and reflects Miéville’s work as a whole. However, it’s also a gesture that plays well to what we would expect to see in young adult literature. Rather than giving in or waiting for someone else to solve Un Lun Dun’s problems, Deeba takes control of the situation. It is a meaningful lesson for students about to inherit a world in the grip of climate change, economic recession, and an unfortunately long list of other daunting issues.
Regardless of their age, fans of Miéville’s work will find satisfaction in the fantastic creations on display in Un Lun Dun. Some notable examples here include extreme librarians who place returned books on a cliff of bookshelves, and bus conductors who “conduct” electricity. And it would be wrong to omit the “binja” — not quite garbage bins and not quite ninjas. To his usually well-described creations, Miéville has added charming illustrations throughout the text.
Among other accomplishments, Miéville’s willingness to meld genres has earned him a considerable audience, but that may work against him here. Fans of Miéville’s more daring and adult moments may find Un Lun Dun’s plot somewhat unsatisfying. Ironically, young adult readers accustomed to the relentless plotting of The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) or Uglies (Scott Westerfeld) may find Un Lun Dun’s plot too drawn to its creations and characters. However, readers prepared to explore Un Lun Dun on its own terms should find it a satisfying young adult digression from one of our best fantasy writers.
You know how the story goes: Chosen One discovers an alternate world in dire need of rescue. Said Chosen One is prophesised to save the day, finds it hard to come to terms with newfound responsibility, but eventually rises to the task and rescues the world. Yada yada yada. The end. You’ve seen the formula before. Some fantasy novels tend to let personal initiative and ability take a backseat to fate. But what, China Miéville asks, would happen if the prophesies were UnReliable? What if the Chosen One gave up and went home? What if it is actually the UnChosen one we need? The magical world of UnLondon is indeed in need of saving, but not by whom you’d expect…
Strange things are happening to Zanna. Animals stop to look at her in the street and strangers approach her calling her ‘Schwazzy.’ She and her best friend Deeba can’t make head or tail of it. One day, in a French lesson, the teacher is declining the verb choisir — to choose. Zanna perks up when she hears the teacher say choisi. Shwazzy. Chosen. Then Zanna and Deeba discover the inverted world of UnLondon where piles of trash roam the streets and buses fly through the air and a malevolent Smog is threatening the inhabitants. Zanna is the prophesised Chosen One and must save UnLondon from the poisonous Smog that is threatening to take over.
When faced with her first battle with the Smog, Zanna is ready. Hell, she’s the Chosen One, she’s been prophesised to win. But Zanna fails. Deeba takes her friend back to London proper, where she won’t remember a thing. But Deeba can’t shake the feeling that she’s abandoned her UnLondon companions, and resolves to go back. Deeba, under the title of the UnChosen One, must go back to finish what Zanna started, with her loveable companion Curdle the milk carton for company.
Un Lun Dun defies both genre and character stereotypes to bring an original and refreshing take on the classic hero’s journey. Miéville plays with plot conventions to keep his readers guessing, as well as twisting words to constantly defy expectations. Shwazzy comes from the French choisi. The search for a magical weapon called the Klinneract turns out to be the misinterpreted Clean Air Act. These quirks and twists bring UnLondon and its eclectic inhabitants to life.
Not only does the novel pose provoking questions about character and fate and personal triumph, but it also touches on the hugely relevant topics of pollution, urban development and attitudes towards waste and responsibility. Readers should not be fooled by the YA shelf-mark. Un Lun Dun is accessible to readers across the board.
Miéville gives thanks in his acknowledgements to Lewis Carroll for the inspiration of Alice in Wonderland, and in particular Neil Gaiman. Fans of Neverwhere will not be disappointed by Un Lun Dun, with its myriad twists and turns. Plus, with Miéville’s own illustrations peppering the book, it is impossible not to be completely immersed in the beautifully imagined mirror city.