The giraffes bleated hungrily in the distance as Hemi led Deeba through the unstable streets of Wraithtown, past shops and offices clouded with their own remembered selves. (p. 208)
China Miéville's first novel for children is a dark, hilarious romp through the underside of London -- UnLondon, not a million miles from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and twinned, no doubt, with Parisn't or Helsunki. Miéville acknowledges Gaiman's influence, as well as Lewis Carroll's, Tanith Lee's (especially notable in the reworked place names, as in Piratica) and others, though I'm not quite sure I want to know how Beatrix Potter comes into this tale of predatory giraffes, malefic umbrellas and valiant binjas ...
Take two girls, Zanna and Deeba. They start to realise that Zanna is somehow special: there's graffiti about her, and people rush up to her in the street, ecstatic to actually meet her. But it's not until a broken umbrella crawls up the wall outside Zanna's window that they discover why Zanna -- the 'Shwazzy' -- is special. Or where she's special.
Where's the skill in being a hero if you were always destined to do it? (p. 507)
And then Miéville starts to twist: this is fantasy subverted, with a traditional quest structure that's deliberately skipped to save time; with a book of prophecy consumed by existential angst when it realises it contains things that are Wrong; with antagonists in a centuries-long war whose sole purpose is to make sure they don't find out who won: and with the Chosen One's 'funny sidekick' taking on the task of defeating the enemy. It's not an easy enemy to defeat. For five days, half a century ago, it assaulted London. It killed four thousand people. And still most of you didn't even know you were at war! (p. 111) Yep, they're up against the Smog, with its cohorts and minions -- corrupt politicians, a turncoat or two, and people who are simply, wrong-headedly, hoping for the best.
It's not all gloom, by a long shot. Un Lun Dun (illustrated -- is that the telectroscope on page 398?) is hilariously funny and packed with phantasmagoric images, cool ideas (MOIL technology -- Mildly Obsolete in London -- where disused gadgets and appliances go when they're discarded), and some fine writing that's never too purple. I especially liked Wraithtown, where the ghosts live: Each of the houses, halls, shops, factories, churches and temples was a core of brick, wood, concrete or whatever, surrounded by a wispy corona of earlier versions of itself. Every extension that had ever been built and knocked down, every smaller, squatter outline, every different design: all hung on to existence as spectres. Their insubstantial, colourless forms shimmered in and out of sight. Every building was cocooned in its older, dead selves. (p. 202)
Our heroine gathers the usual motley crew of loyal supporters and some fancy weaponry (I'm reminded of Banks' Lazy Gun, though this is rather less catastrophic and more surreal), but in the end it's up to her to save London and its hidden counterpart.
In the streets of UnLondon a group made up of a girl, a half-ghost, a talking book, a piece of rubbish and two living words was unusual, but not very. (p. 338)
A quick, fun read and an excellent present for anyone with a weird sense of humour, or who enjoys wordplay, or who likes a little eco-conscience with their entertainment.