Feb 24, 2010

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

Fourteen-year-old Zaana has been seeing strange things. First, there was that time when the clouds in the sky seemed to spell her name. Then there were all the animals that appeared to wink, subtly nod, or even curtsy when they passed her. And then there was the stranger who shook her hand at a café and says he was honoured to meet her. Zaana is scared and confused, and only her best friend Deeba seems to take her seriously. The strangest event of them all, though, is when in an abandoned cellar the two turn a wheel that simply turns off the city of London. In its place, UnLondon appears.

UnLondon, the girls’ hometown’s dark twin, is a place every bit as interesting as it is scary. From feral trash to carnivorous giraffes to ghosts roaming the streets, they never know what they’ll find at the next turn. But more than to make sense of UnLondon, Zaana just wants to find a way to go back home. Except it’s not that easy – it appears that the citizens of UnLondon are fighting a terrible foe, and everyone seems to believe that Zaana – who they address as “The Schawzy” – will be able to save them.

Un Lun Dun was quite a bit different than I was expecting, and I confess it took me about a hundred pages to get into it properly. This was because at first it seemed to be too traditional an adventure story for me. While there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with traditional adventures, it wasn’t quite what I expected from Miéville. However, after a while he does subvert readers’ expectations, and even though I saw the way this was done coming, it was enough to satisfy me.

Another reason why it took me some time to get into Un Lun Dun was the fact that it’s more of a plot-based than character-based sort of book. Again, nothing wrong with that, and I don’t mean that the characters weren’t interesting, or that the characterisation was poor. It’s just that a plot-centred story wasn’t quite what I was in the mood for when I picked it up, so if anything it was an error of timing on my part. But fortunately, Un Lun Dun really grew on me as I read on.

The most accurate way to describe this book, actually, is to say that rather than plot-based, it’s setting-based. I very much agree with what Miéville says on his essay on Tolkien: worldbuilding is an undervalued literary skill. I think it takes a lot of talent to create a place like Un Lun Dun: frightening yet exciting, odd and wildly imaginative and yet familiar in a hundred little ways. Part of what makes it so interesting is exactly the way it twists the familiar in unexpected ways, presenting it from entirely new angles. Unlondon put me in mind of some of my favourite imaginary cities: Philip Pullman’s Other Oxford, Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsests, the world of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mirrormask, and of course, the world of Neverwhere (which Miéville mentions was an inspiration in the acknowledgements). It’s not that these fantastic cities are similar, exactly; it’s just that that they’re all both instantly recognizable but completely unexpected. They seem to exist beyond the page (or the screen), and they make us long to dive in and explore them.

You know when you can feel that an author is really having fun with a book? Un Lun Dun very much gave me that impression. It’s quite a dark story in some ways, but it’s also very playful – especially when it comes to the language. In addition to UnLondon, we have mentions of Romeless and Parisin’t; we have bookanners, umbrellas and rebrellas, and binjas (yes, those are ninja garbage bins). And this just to give you a few examples. Another thing that adds to the fun are the illustrations, which Miéville drew himself. Examples:

Un Lun Dun Un Lun Dun

Un Lun Dun
If you’re looking for a book with a determined young heroine, for a fast-paced and unusual adventure story, for a highly original world of which you’ll want to see more, or for a story featuring a pet milk cartoon (you know you've always wanted to read one), then Un Lun Dun is definitely for you.

Bits I liked:
“My dad hates umbrellas”, said Deeba, swinging her own. “When it rains he always says the same thing: ‘I do not believe the presence of moisture in the air is sufficient reason to overturn society’s usual sensible taboo against wielding spiked cubs at eye-level.’”

‘The thing is,’ Deeba said, eyeing Mr Speaker, ‘you could only make words do what you wanted if it was just you deciding what they mean. But it isn’t. It’s everyone else too. Which means you might want to give them orders, but you aren’t in total control. No one is.’

‘… Where’s the skill in being a hero if you were always destined to do it?’ said Hemi. He hesitated and said, ‘You impress me a lot more.’
Other Opinions:
Everyday Reads (Thank you again for the book! ♥)
Just Add Books
Works by Annie
Dwelling in Possibility



  1. It sounds spellbinding and definitely one I want to read. I like the fact that it is a mirror image of her home town. I love books where whole new worlds are created.

  2. I have never read anything like this. I am hooked.. and I want to definitely give this author a try.

  3. My friend Terry just reviewed this like last week and it sounds fantastic. I just hope I can get my hands on a copy. :D

  4. This book sounds amazing. Once I've read The City and the City by Mieville, I'm definitely going to give this a go. I really enjoyed reading Gaiman's Neverwhere so another book about an alternative London is just too tempting.

  5. The only Mieville I've read is Perdido Street Station, but that was enough to know exactly what you meant by calling his work "setting-based" - Perdido Street Station also did worldbuilding first, plot second, and characterization third.

    I've got some of Mieville's other books on my wishlist, but not this one - something I'll have to go rectify, as it sounds like I'd really like it.

  6. Oooh, I love the cover on yours!

    While I can tell this likely won't make your favorites of the year list, I have a feeling I'd really enjoy it.

    And I've yet to visit any of those other cities you mentioned, but oh how I'd love to go visit Lyra's Oxford with you! Don't you wish it was really possible? :)

  7. sounds delightful !! thanx for sharing !!

  8. Thanks for this review, Nymeth. I think I gave up on this one too soon and will try it again!

  9. I haven't read any of his stuff! I'm so behind and ashamed. lol

    This one sounds like a fun premise--especiall the cool use of language.

  10. I didn't know about this book. I love the idea that he did his own illustrations for this. I have read most of his others. He definitely takes the right mood, I think. I have always gotten the impression that building the world is as important for him as any other elements of his books.

  11. Whoa, weird spam messages!

    I have been wanting to try Mieville for some time, and I think this book would be a nice toe-dipper to give him a shot. I didn't even know he was a he until a few months ago. Eek!

  12. I usually don't read fantasy, but that sure does sound good to me.

  13. I read it last September and loved the imagination in it. One word of warning - set your spam filters on the comments for this post as I *still* get spam in Chinese on my review!

  14. Very interesting review. I was wondering if you had read Perdido Street Station by Mieville? It is a very plot based book, but it has some incredible world building and I think the weirdness of the plot might really pique your interest, as it did mine. I think I am going to put this book in my list, as I have been meaning to read more by Mieville and this one looks good to me!

  15. This sounds fun and I love the illustrations!

  16. I started this one months ago and got about 125 pages in, then stalled on it, I've been meaning to get back to it.

  17. Another look into a very interesting book!! I so love how you express yourself! You'll make a wonderful librarian!!!

  18. This is one I really have to get my my hands on. Love Mieville's stuff; especially The Iron Council. Everything I've read by him so far I've enjoyed.

  19. Sounds fascinating. This book and author are new to me. I'll have to keep my eyes open for this one.

  20. You read some of the greatest, most obscure titles there are. But this book sounds super interesting, something light and funky, almost. And again, it's not in my library! Sigh..

  21. This sounds delightful! My TBR list is exploding this evening.

  22. Everyone in my family loves this book (the kids read it when they were 12 and 15). It's got such good wordplay, and it's a book for readers. It does help to know a bit of British (as you point out, "bin" for "trashcan").

  23. Sounds like a delightful read...and I find the premise so interesting! I've this book in my pile so I look forward to reading it.

  24. You always seem to read such different books. Many of your selection, I have not heard of so I love reading your thoughts. Thanks

  25. Wow, I've never heard of anything like this. Un Lon Don seems so unique and different! I need to check it out.

    Une Parole

  26. I'm intrigued by the binjas. The one on the cover caught my eye right away.

  27. I couldn't get into the book even half way through, so I did not finish it.

    I think teenagers or younger kids will enjoy this book more.

  28. Un Lun Dun was the subject of my very first blog post: http://beckerdwellinginpossibility.blogspot.com/2009/09/carniverous-giraffes-and-sentient.html

    I did a middle school book club with this title, and the kids all loved it (some said it was better than Harry Potter). Glad people are still spreading the word about this book!

  29. Vivienne: I love them as well - hooray for fantasy :)

    Veens: He's definitely original!

    Amanda: I hope you enjoy it!

    Chasingbawa: This one is very clearly influenced by Neverwhere, while still being very much its own thing :)

    Fyrefly: Perdido Street Station has been on my list for ages! I'm first and foremost a character-oriented reader, but I do love me some good worldbuilding :)

    Debi: I'm a big fan of the cover as well! And yeah, that's how it was for me - not life-changing, but fun :)

    Bedazzled, you're welcome!

    Gavin: It did take me a while to get into, but in the end it was worth it :)

    Andi: Don't be ashamed! It's never too late :P

    Jill: I definitely get that impression as well from the two I've read.

    Aarti: Evil spammers :( Sorry! And yeah, I think this would be a nice intro!

    Kathy: I fully believe that there's a right fantasy book out there for every reader ;)

    Peta: That's SO weird! When I got home yesterday I had two spam messages on this post already, and normally I only get them on older posts (which are moderated). Eek!

    Zibilee: I haven't - the only other one I've read was King Rat. It's on the list, though!

  30. I can't believe I haven't heard of this before! It sounds great. I'll definitely give this a try.

  31. Kathleen: Aren't they great?

    Bart: It's worth sticking to in the end, I think! Page 125 is just when it starts to get good :P

    Staci: Awww, thank you! :D I hope so! I'll definitely try my very best :)

    Fence: Clearly I need to read more of his books!

    Lorin: I hope you enjoy it!

    Maree: I told you I would :P

    Michelle: Weirdly enough, I somehow was under the impression everyone had read this but me! :P Sorry that your library doesn't have it :(

    Stephanie: lol - book blogs are evil like that :P

    Jeanne: The worldplay was one of my very favourite things about it :)

    Melody: I hope you enjoy it!

    Diane: Aw, thank you for the kind words!

    Emidy: It's very original for sure :)

    Jill: The binjas were awesome :D

    Violet: Sorry to hear it :\ I've been told I have the mindset of a kid, so it would be that for me :P

    Becker, thank you for your link! I'm happy to hear the kids loved it so much :D Any book that gets kid reading tends to make me happy :P

    Vasilly: Do! It's a lot of fun :)

  32. I like the sound of this book. I will check out this book! Thanks!

  33. this sounds very good, and I like the illustrations!
    Yes, building worlds within books is an amazing talent some writers possess. I love Tolkiens Middle Earth, while I fead his books I almost felt like it was a real place.

  34. Mieville's world-building skills really shone through with The City & The City, which I loved. I'd been planning to read Un Lun Dun as my next Mieville, and your review confirmed it would be a good choice.

  35. I have The City & the City on order on audio from the library as I'm wanting to try to get in all the Nebula nominated novels before the awards in May. If that is a positive experience perhaps I'll go back to Un Lun Dun and give it another try. The book frustrated me so much that I had to give it up. I was alternately thrilled with parts of it and annoyed with some of his poor sentence structure. I almost felt like it was a book that he and someone less talented were taking turns writing every other paragraph. Now it probably wasn't *that* bad, but I do remember being very distracted by bits of the writing.

  36. Hi Ana, great review! I've read this some time ago but I can't say I like it very much.

  37. Loki Antoinette de la Morte SanguineDec 10, 2010, 2:27:00 PM

    I love UnLunDun!!!

    DeebaxHemi 4evah, they HAVE to end up together!!!
    Deeba. Rapes. Hemi.
    Kawaii ne?


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.