Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Book For Those Who Love Sidekicks

I've been hearing about China Mieville for years. Then his YA novel, Un Lun Dun, was published to raves from reviewers who might not be regular readers of children's fiction. I finally managed to read Un Lun Dun this past month when it was up for discussion at one of my listservs.

This book has a lot going for it, so I'm going to hit what was for me the big negative first, so that I can end on an up note. The negative is that I don't care for books loaded with strange creatures. In a really good interview, Mieville says, "Of all aspects of writing fantastic fiction, the one that never causes me tremendous difficulty is the grotesquerie, the strange figures, the monsters..." He also says he "normally" has to eliminate a few if they serve no plot purpose. He has some marvelous strange figures here, but sometimes the story seems overwhelmed with them. It took a long while for me to start feeling a narrative drive.

That being said, though, Mieville does some clever things in this book about two young girls who discover a secret city, a city that's not London but unLondon. One of them is believed to be the hero a prophesy foretold would come, and they begin an adventure to save Un Lun Dun from something evil that wants to destroy it. Mieville really does know this classic (I'm sure some would say stereotypical) storyline, and he produces some very neat twists relating to sidekicks, prophecies, and quests. As much as I liked that, though, I wondered if younger readers would get it. Maybe you have to be familiar with those types of stories to understand what the author is doing. Or maybe I'm overthinking. It's possible readers can enjoy what's going on without realizing that the author is tweaking a genre.

I thought the danger Un Lun Dun was facing was very interesting, though its human manifestation was obviously a bad guy. All the bad guys were pretty obvious to an adult reader. Given what the danger is, I think this book could very easily have turned into a save-the-environment rant. I don't feel it did, which I very much appreciate. Mieville also has a dry wit I enjoyed.

The early part of this book reminded me a great deal of the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins. In those books a child whose ethnicity is unclear finds a strange world full of unusual creatures (though nowhere
near as many as in Un Lun Dun) and learns that he is the leader a prophecy had predicted would come to save a group there. In nearly every book he has to go on some kind of journey, so he's traveling through strange places as Deeba does in Un Lun Dun.

I think mid-teen, patient, sophisticated readers who were fans of the
Underland Chronicles when they were younger would be very happy to find Un Lun Dun. They'd be reading something that takes liberties with the storyline of a beloved childhood series without destroying it. Readers who enjoy a high-class creature feature will like Un Lun Dun, too.

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