If you've ever been to one of the older cities in Europe — Paris, London, or Rome — you'll know what it's like to feel the weight of history bearing down on you when you walk through certain parts of the city. There are areas in those cities and certain others where humans have lived for well over a thousand years, and in some instances even longer. I remember getting off the plane in Athens – after fifteen hours in transit – walking out of the airport and almost being bowled over by the weight of history that came from seeing the Acropolis the first time.
London may not be as old as Athens, or even Rome, but there are parts of it where you feel like if you turn a corner you'd all of a sudden drop into another time, almost another world. Enter into one of the twisty back alleys that run off any of the main streets that make up the old City Of London, and there's the feeling if you only knew the right way of looking you'd be able to see into them.
In a great many of these older cities the new buildings, the new city itself in some places, has been built over top of the remains of its older versions. Catacombs that were once streets where a city's populace carried out their lives can be found buried beneath many a city in Europe; empty caverns of brick and mortar patiently waiting to be useful again.
It's little wonder that authors have been inspired to create stories that centre around alternative or separate versions of these cities. The most recent of these stories is China Mieville's strange and wonderful Un Lun Dun published by Random House Canada through its Del Rey imprint.
Un Lun Dun exists somewhere where London isn't; maybe beside it, maybe beneath it, at the very least near by enough so things, and occasionally people, slip through for a visit or to stay. Most of what comes through is Mildly Obsolete In London, referred to by Un Lun Duners as moil. Anything left lying around that is considered junk by Londeners, old computers, the out-of-date fridge, even vinyl records, will eventually make its way into Un Lun Dun, where it will be put to good use as building materials.
Zanna and her best friend Deeba are ordinary 12-year-old girls in ordinary London, who notice that extraordinary things are starting to happen to Zanna. How many times have you had a fox come up to you in your school yard and bow to you? Or a bus driver approach you in the coffee shop where you and your friends are sitting after school and stammer out how pleased to meet you she is and call you by the title of Shwazzy. To make matters worse, the very next day a post man was waiting for Zanna outside her house when she went to school with a note saying, we'll see you soon, and a pass for what looks to be strange version of the London Transit system, in the name of Shwazzy!
Well as you can guess, Zanna and Deeba are drawn into Un Lun Don, where they learn of the prophesy that foretells the coming of the Swazzy, who will defeat the Smog. The book of Prophesies describes Zanna down to the last letter, and as the book says himself – everything written in him is either true or will be true. But then something goes horrible wrong and it's up to Deeba to save the day.
At first that means getting Zanna safely home to London, but it ends up with Deeba being the one who is called upon to protect the Un Lun Duners from the horrible plans of Smog and its allies who want to take over the city. So she returns to Un Lun Dun where she's joined by a band of motley followers who to set out on a quest for the one weapon that can defeat the The Smog – The Un-Gun.
China Mieville has created a world that is filled with strangeness, beauty, and wondrous oddities. Creatures come to life made from the words that one character speaks, carnivorous packs of giraffes roam the streets at night looking for prey, highly skilled guards known as binjas, (trash bins that are ninja warriors), Black Window Spiders (windows with eight legs that guard the treasures of Webminster Abbey), and of course Hemi the half-ghost boy who becomes Deeba's closest companion (his mother was a ghost and his father alive).
These are just a small sampling of those who inhabit Un Lon Dun. Just as in our world some act like they do because that's just who they are, the flesh-eating giraffes and the Black Windows, while others act just like humans in spite of their inhuman appearances. It means that in turn they are brave, afraid, mean, gentle, and all the rest of the things that qualify a being to be considered rational and aware – even if they are a book of prophesies or an old-fashioned diving suit named Skool that turns out to be filled with water and fish.
At first no one is prepared to listen to Deeba, after all the book of prophesies describes her as the Swazzy's funny sidekick, so who is going to take her seriously, and believe her when she tries to warn them of the threat they are facing? But as she and her companions have more and more success, and are finaly able to collect the Un-Gun, Deeba is gradually accepted and eventually becomes the leader of the resistance against Smog.
Un Lun Dun is not only a wonderfully funny, exciting, and even a little bit sad and scary, story for people of all ages, it also has a really nice message that I'd hope young people, and others too for that matter, can pick up on. No matter what anyone says about you, or what other people believe you are capable of, you make your own destiny and control your own fate. For although it is written that Zanna is the Swazzy who will save Un Lun Dun, it is Deeba who must find the courage within herself to confront not only her fears, but the evil minions of Smog and eventually Smog himself.
China Mieville includes a thank you to Neil Gaiman in his acknowledgments, where he makes reference to Mr. Gaiman's book Neverwhere. While it's true that both books take place in alternative London, they really don't have all that much else in common. While Un Lun Dun might have its scary moments, there's nothing of the nightmare quality or atmosphere that prevails in Neverwhere. Un Lun Dun seems a much friendlier place, one you'd be more inclined to want to visit again, than the alternative setting in Neverwhere.
Un Lun Dun is the work of a vivid imagination, and a remarkably strange sense of humour, and on top of that it's a wonderful adventure story filled with great characters and some truly bizarre locations. If you have the ability to suspend your disbelief, and a taste for the fantastic, Un Lun Dun should definitely be on your reading list.