Novel * China Miéville * The Unchosen One * 2007
I almost didn’t finish Un Lun Dun, which would have been a bummer for me because it turned out to be pretty good. In retrospect, I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the novel or unfair expectations on my part. I think the latter, mostly because I read this hot after reading through the entire Harry Potter series, and that’s just completely unfair for any young adult fantasy novel to compete with. Especially something like Un Lun Dun, which is doing the hidden-fantasy-world-in-the-real-world thing as well. Of course this isn’t going to be on the same level, nor is this book trying to be. It’s a one-off story, for one thing, and so obviously it’s going to lack the depth of Rowling’s masterworks. Further, as I realized around page 100 or so, Harry Potter is the wrong comparison anyway. Un Lun Dun has more in common with Alice in Wonderland than anything, which is to say that Miéville is less interested in wholesale world building than he is in writing a whimsical adventure story. I’m pretty sure that if you go in with the proper expectation, Un Lun Dun will get off to a quicker start than it did for me, because it turns out it’s actually pretty cool.
Perhaps you put the title together a little bit faster than I did, and if so you pretty much have a grasp on the concept of the novel. It’s UnLondon, you see. The story begins in regular London with two young teens (they might be twelve? They’re not in their late teens, anyway) with the fun names Zanna and Deeba. Right from the jump Un Lun Dun is setting you up. The first chapter is entitled “The Respectful Fox,” which is a good chapter title (there are many of these and I’m jealous because titles are difficult enough once, let alone 99 times), and informs the reader of what kind of story they’re getting into. All these slightly weird things keep happening to the dreamy, kinda-pretty Zanna. Deeba, her more pragmatic and personable friend, keeps pointing them out to her, and Zanna keeps denying anything strange is going on. Obviously Deeba is right, and before too long the two girls find their way into another world. Naturally.
The concept of Un Lun Dun’s fantasy world is pretty cool, in that it’s a fantastical world that is comprised of the “real” world’s cast-offs. UnLondon is essentially created out of garbage and outmoded technology. There are quite a lot of proper nouns right away, which was a factor early on in turning me off the world building. Dear authors, please don’t toss a bunch of names and titles and whatnot at me right away. I’m not going to know what the hell you’re talking about. That said, the world building isn’t that big of a deal here. Again, the right comparison is Wonderland. The fantasy is more free-wheeling and whimsical than an attempt to create an actual place. Where the likes of Tolkien or Martin or Rowling all endeavor to create a concrete sense of place, Miéville is happy to sketch out a world and let the imagination fill in the blanks. And that’s fine, it’s simply an adjustment if you’re more used to comprehensive world building.
Once Zanna and Deeba arrive in UnLondon they’re immediately whisked away into adventure. There’s a prophecy, you see, a Chosen One will arrive and do a Quest in order to deliver UnLondon from apocalyptic danger. Speaking of proper nouns, I really hate the term used for the Chosen One, which is “The Shwazzy.” I don’t know why, but it just bugs me. Maybe because it kept reminding me of Spaceballs, which is all well and good but is not really the thing I want to be thinking about while trying to enjoy this story. “We ain’t found shit!” Anyway, Shwazzy aside, the bones of the story appear to be fairly standard. Zanna is going to do some weird, circuitous quest in order to get what she needs in order to vanquish the world-eating monster, Smog. Again, London mostly took care of their smog problem, but since nothing ever really goes away, it ended up in UnLondon and started causing problems among all the weirdos. At this point, quirky nature of the fantasy world aside, it’s all pretty standard fantasy fare. Which means it’s a good thing when things go sideways quick.
How many times have you been reading a book like this and end up not enjoying the principal character that much? I mean, is anyone out there a big Frodo fan? Hell no, everyone likes Sam. Or Gimli, or some other character who isn’t a total drag. Same with Harry Potter. Now I think Harry has a good arc and all, but I enjoy some of the other characters more. Because Harry is a drag a lot of the time. People tend to gravitate toward the quirky sidekick, because they balance out the more dreary aspects of the protagonist. Now another question: why not just make the fun sidekick the protagonist in the first place? Miéville hears you, and delivers a much-needed subversion to the old formula. About a hundred pages in, it is made clear to everyone that the aforementioned prophecy is wrong. The Smog attacks our heroes, Zanna is knocked out, and Deeba is allowed to leave UnLondon with her friend. Up until this point, Deeba has been the faithful quirky sidekick, even if she’s been kind of annoying with her constant pining for home. At this point, she gets her wish and takes Zanna back to London, where the erstwhile Chosen One forgets everything that happened.
Of course Deeba eventually makes her way back to UnLondon, where she sets about taking up Zanna’s quest to save the day. She ends up amassing her own motley crew of assorted weirdos to help her out in her adventuring, and in so doing ends up being the cool hero that Zanna was meant to be. There’s nothing really subtle about the satire here, and it’s all in good, lighthearted fun. One of Deeba’s travelling buddies is a talking book, the very same tome in which the prophecies were written in the first place. The book has been depressed ever since finding out that he was filled with lies, still, the book still has good information in it, which they need to defeat the Smog. There’s a point where Deeba is looking for herself in said prophecies and finds, to her dismay, that she was meant to be the funny sidekick. Like I said, the inversion of the usual trope is a bit on the nose, but it’s still fun. I especially appreciate that Deeba is shorter, rounder, and plainer than Zanna, who ends up being little more than a type. Deeba saves the day because she’s charismatic and clever, not because she’s a statuesque blonde.
My favorite subversion of expectations is how Deeba approaches the problem of the Hero’s Quest. The original prophecy anointed Zanna as the Hero, and her Quest was to perform a series of feats, each designed to assist in the next. Lacking any other means of fighting the Smog, Deeba goes ahead and attempts to accomplish this series of tasks. There’s a problem, though, which is an artificial time limit set by traveling between the two worlds. The longer someone from London is in UnLondon, the less likely it is that their friends and family will remember them. It’s a convoluted plot thing, of which there are many, don’t worry about it. The important thing is that there isn’t enough time for Deeba to realistically perform each task properly. They do the first one, which involves stealing a key from a bird. The key lets you open a thing which lets you do another thing which will lead to the other thing. Deeba, who is rad, simply skips to the end. Why do all this dumb bullshit if we can just do the last thing and get on with it. Which they do, and it’s brilliant.
I don’t want to dismiss the world building out of hand, because there are a lot of imaginative and fascinating ideas here. But the point of UnLondon is to be a kaleidoscope of fantastical weirdness than any kind of concrete world. The final task that Deeba just skips to is a case in point. There is a cathedral filled with spiders, and while that by itself would be creepy enough, these spiders are actually windows to various rooms. People go in, get snapped up by a Black Window (yes) and suddenly they’re trapped alone in some isolated no-space until they starve to death. Pretty grim, but still a cool concept. Then Deeba finds the Hero Weapon, which is the UnGun. This is another great idea, in which you can put random whatever into this revolver, and each item becomes weaponized. Like you put an ant in the chamber and blammo, swarm of ants to attack your enemy. That’s fun. And that also sums up the experience of Un Lun Dun. It’s fun. The characters are on the thin side, but they’re fun to be around. The trope inversion is obvious, but it’s fun. The world is incoherent and silly, but it’s fun. Funnnn.