David Martin (United Kingdom) (2007/12/11):
Londoner Zanna finds herself inextricably drawn into a parallel city called Un-Lun-Dun. With her reluctant friend Deeba also along for the ride, Zanna discovers a city that is as different from her own as anything she could imagine. In Un Lun Dun the garbage is alive, ghosts exist and the government consists of an 'all-knowing' band of Propheseers. However, all is not well in this weird ab-city. An evil force known as Smog is threatening to destroy and devour Un Lun Dun and has ambitious plans to move into Zanna and Deeba's own city. In world that is in desperate need of a hero, can two girls stop the Smog with the help of a half-ghost, a pint of milk and a strangely powerful man who controls broken umbrellas?
Un Lun Dun is one of the strangest novels this fantasy reader has encountered, and who usually has his own monopoly on strange! The author, China Mievelle, blends fantasy, thriller and horror to stunning effect in what can only be described as a masterpiece of a story. Mievelle cites authors such as Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker as his inspiration for his novel and it is easy to see where these influences have been drawn upon - elements of Barker's Abarat and Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are obvious. However, what Un Lun Dun really reminds me of is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I am certain Mievelle has attempted to update the classic tale for a modern audience.
If this was Mievelle's intention then, wittingly or not, this is a hugely successful and entertaining update. Un Lun Dun is a much darker, atmospheric city than Oz but the sense of wonder at the imagination of the writer in creating such a fantastic setting remains. This author's powers of description are second to none and I found myself fully immersed in Un Lun Dun and its wacky inhabitants. The characters are truly ridiculous and at times you cannot help but laugh at an elite security force in the shape of dustbins called "The Binja" or a man with a birdcage for a head. Yet, somehow, Un Lun Dun is not a particularly humorous novel.
Despite the ridiculousness of the setting and characters Un Lun Dun is a scary, edgy piece of writing. The heroines have considerable scares and the writing is dark and foreboding with an underlying environmental message that is rammed home in several dark and vivid episodes of violence. There are variations on zombies for Zanna and Deeba to contend with and the villainous fog is a genuinely frightening creation the likes of which schlock horror writers such as James Herbert would be proud. In fact, although this novel is billed as China Mievelle's first venture into fantasy fiction for younger readers, I would think some young readers and even adults may find some of the potential graphic violence a bit much.
In a literary domain dominated by the schmaltzy idealistic world of Harry Potter, Un Lun Dun is a refreshingly gritty tale of magic and adventure where people die, things happen and not everyone wins. Rowling and co would do well to take note of how this author writes to a teenage audience without patronising them with simplistic language and one-dimensional characters.
This is a truly imaginative piece of writing that rarely disappoints. However, if I was looking for criticism, it does take a good while to get going. It is also quite lengthy at a hefty five-hundred plus pages so you will need some perseverance until its wonders unfold before you. If you do stick with it though, what you will find is an edgy, original take on an old classic that will excite and intrigue throughout. This is an author who refuses to dumb down and although you might question the graphic content, any teenager will love this and you owe it to them and yourself to get a copy.