YA Review: “London through the looking glass” —
and some Extreme Librarians*, my new heroes
(Or, do you want a book that will take you back to your “slack-jawed,
book-drunk days of youth”?)

h1 May 23rd, 2007 by jules

Laura Miller at Salon.com in her review of Un Lun Dun (Random House; February 2007; library copy) wrote those words you see in the post title: “China Miéville just may take adults back to their slack-jawed, book-drunk days of youth.” I love that too much to not share it. This is a vigorously original and inventive fantasy YA novel (that, incidentally — as every reviewer will tell you — will leave Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett fans very, very happy). I haven’t read anything like this in a long time, something which is packed with such indelible images that I will not for a long time forget the very experience of reading it. Best of all, as Miller puts it, Miéville “trains a healthy skepticism on those familiar and inherently conservative fantasy tropes about people who are born special and the need to slavishly follow ancient texts and rituals.” This fiddling with the conventions of fantasy narratives was one of the reasons this book was such a kick, so compelling — and humorous. Apparently, I’m not the only one to think so, as the novel is #10 on The New York Times Children’s Bestseller List and #2 of the Book Sense Spring Children’s Picks List.

Miéville is a British fantasy writer, who — according to this Wikipedia entry — is fond of describing his work as “weird fiction (after early 20th century pulp and horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft), and belongs to a loose group of writers sometimes called New Weird who consciously attempt to move fantasy away from commercial, genre clichés of Tolkien epigons.” Known for his Arthur C. Clarke, Hugo, Nebula, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy award-winning or nominated adult novels (King Rat, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council), this is his first YA novel. According to Library Journal, the major alteration made to this novel for the young adult crowd was that he omitted the eroticism evident in his other works.

The story begins with two London friends, Zanna (short for “Susannah”) and Deeba, both age twelve. Bizarre things start happening to Zanna, including animals greeting her with an awed reverence, her name appearing in graffiti (“Zanna For Ever!”), and strangers stopping her to excitedly gush over finally meeting her, calling her “the Shwazzy.” There is no question for the two girls that something is awfully awry when a very broken but very-much-alive umbrella starts crawling up Zanna’s windowsill. Chasing the umbrella to the basement of the housing complex where she lives, the girls turn a wheel and end up in UnLondon, “London through the looking glass,” as the publisher likes to describe this title. Zanna soon figures out she is, indeed, the Shwazzy. Having already figured out the meaning in her high school French class (“Choisi. Shwazzy. Chosen”), she sees in the surreal, fantastical UnLondon — where everything broken or discarded from London ends up (remember that umbrella? Once broken in London and no longer possessing a purpose, an item seeps through and becomes something else; hence, the “unbrellas,” as Miéville seems to be remarking on our disposable-everything society) — that she is “the chosen one” for the people of UnLondon, what Publishers Weekly called “a Gaiman-esque wonderland of ghosts, zombies, walking garbage cans and sentient umbrellas.”

UnLondon is one of many “abcities” (some of the others being Lost Angeles, No York and Parisn’t). As someone explains to the girls upon their arrival, “{a}bcities have existed at least as long as the cities . . . Each dreams the other. There are ways to get between the two, and a few people do, though very few know the truth. This is where the most energetic of London’s discards come, and in exchange London takes a few of our ideas—clothes, the waterwheel, the undernet.” They are told that “{i}deas seep both ways” from London to UnLondon, but unfortunately, something else seeps from one to the other: lots of nasty pollution from London to the abcity. That pollution has become a living, breathing, animated enemy of the town, The Smog. When the girls meet The Propheseers, the intellectuals of the abcity who own a talking book, which claims to have the prophecies and the fate of the Shwazzy all spelled out, the book tells them:

“Back in your old queen’s time . . . London filled up with factories, and all of them had chimneys. In houses they burnt coal. And the factories were burning everything, and letting off smoke from chemical sand poisons. And the crematoria, and the railways, and the power stations, all added their own effluvia . . . Add all that to the valley fog, and what you get’s a smoke
stew . . . Yellow-brown and sitting on the city like a stinking dog. . . . At first, it was just a dirty cloud. Nasty but brainless as a stump. But then something happened. There were so many chemicals swilling around in it that they reacted together. The gases and liquid vapor and brick dust and bone dust and acids and alkalis, fired through by lightning, heated up and cooled down, tickled by electric wires and stirred up by the wind—they reacted together and made an enormous, diffuse cloud-brain. The smog started to think. And that’s when it became the Smog.”

And the Smog? Well, it’s just damn scary. That’s about all I can say. You just need to read and experience it yourself. There are even terrifying Stink-junkies, the Smog’s “addict-slaves.” There is also an unforgettable fructbot; the UnGun; a character with a bird cage for a noggin; the UnSun, shaped like a giant doughnut and floating all over the sky (“the bit missing from the middle of the UnSun was what became the sun of London . . . what lights your days got plucked out of what lights ours,” Deeba is told); Puzzleborough, a housing development not unlike a game in which a picture is chopped into squares, one is taken out, and all the pieces slide around; The Black Window in Webminster Abbey, the plu-perfect predator; a pet milk carton (“Curdle”); a half-boy-half-ghost named Hemi; and the delightfully creepy yet hysterical Mr. Speaker and his utterlings.

illustration of Mr. Speaker by China Miéville from Un Lun Dun; used with permission from Random HouseMr. Speaker is a man with a misshapen and extended head, an astonishingly loud voice, and an enourmous mouth from which living “animal-things” slip with each of his words, “scuttle like a millipede down his shirt, and disappear
. . . {they} seemed to coalesce and drop from behind his teeth. They were small, and each a completely different shape. They flew or crawled or slithered into the room, where, Deeba realized, hundreds of other creatures waited.” Our hero — in an attempt to get past Mr. Speaker — pays him in words he hadn’t heard before (“bling,” whose animal-thing slipping from Mr. Speaker’s mouth is “{a} big silver-furred locust”; “lairy,” “a baby-sized thing with one staring eye”; and “diss,” a “six-legged brown bear cub”). Mr. Speaker cries in delight over the “slang utterlings,” and our hero secures her escape. “Words,” she further tells him, “don’t always mean what we want them to . . . you could only make words do what you want 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
. . . So, you might think all these words have to obey you. But they don’t.” It is an unforgettable scene that is, at turns, dark, hysterical, thought-provoking (what with Miéville’s commentary on the ephemeral nature of words), and wholly original and clever. {One of Miéville’s illustrations from the novel, an image of Mr. Speaker, is pictured here, used with permission from Random House. Miéville sparsely populates the book with some illustrations of his own, but they never overwhelm; in other words, thankfully, he leaves a lot to our imaginations. To see other illustrations from the book, visit this Random House page for the novel and click on “illustrations”} . . .

And, as Miller puts it, “Miéville has more in mind than just showing off how many weird creatures he can think up” (no pose-striking here, as she puts it). Turning traditional fantasy plot elements on their heads (and giving the middle finger to the cliches of the genre), he is constantly taking us in new directions at every turn (even providing what was for me a laugh-out-loud moment as he plays with the notion of the Clever and Funny Sidekick in literature). (Miéville also states here in a Random House interview, “there are fairy tales and debates with them all over the place in Un Lun Dun, both traditional, as filtered through the likes of the Grimms and perhaps especially Andrew Lang, and more modern, especially those of Hans Christian Andersen”). In Zanna and with the Propheseers’ bumbling talking book, we see that “{n}ot everything went how it was supposed to, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing useful in you.” If destiny doesn’t work, take things into your own hands, our hero discovers for herself. Pretty empowering stuff, but most of all, it makes for a grand adventure. And, as VOYA wrote in their review, “the tone is brightened by the small kindnesses and sincere friendships forged amidst — and sometimes with — the rubbish. The result is a dark, charming, robust, comical adventure played according to new rules.”

* * * * * * *

* I can’t pass up telling you about Margarita Staples, “Extreme librarian. Bookaneer.” Right. So, in another unforgettable scene, our hero climbs a library shelf like a ladder in an effort to return to UnLondon (the book having told her, “enter by booksteps. And storyladders”). Suddenly, she realizes the bookshelves she had been climbing become “a chimney poking from a vertical universe of bookshelves.” It’s the awe-inspiring Wordhoard Abyss of UnLondon, and there are people on the shelves, dangling from ropes and hooks and carrying picks. Margarita Staples is just one of many Extreme Librarians, or Bookaneers, who risks her life in this towering universe of bookshelves to retrieve manuscripts. Here Margarita is telling Deeba about her Extreme Librarian hero:

“Sometimes we’d be gone for weeks, fetching volumes. . . .

There are risks. Hunters, animals, and accidents. Ropes that snap. Sometimes someone gets separated. Twenty years ago, I was in a group looking for a book someone had requested. I remember it was called ‘Oh All Right Then’: Bartleby Returns. We were led by Ptolemy Yes. He was the man taught me. Best librarian there’s ever been, some say.

Anyway, after weeks of searching, we ran out of food and had to turn back. No one likes it when we fail, so none of us were feeling great.

We felt that much worse when we realized that we’d lost Ptolemy.

Some people say he went off deliberately. That he couldn’t bear not to find the book. That he’s out there still in the Wordhoard Abyss, living off shelf-monkeys, looking. And that he’ll come back one day, book in his hand.”

We librarians need to remember that the next time we want to whine about our jobs, yes? At least we don’t have to carry picks to work or, uh, fight shelf-monkeys. Yeesh.

12 comments to “YA Review: “London through the looking glass” —
and some Extreme Librarians*, my new heroes
(Or, do you want a book that will take you back to your “slack-jawed,
book-drunk days of youth”?)

  1. How funny it is that I read your review and think, “Yay, a review by someone I trust! Now I’ll buy the book.” I didn’t like Miller’s review, because it was based on trashing other books she’s never read. But I know, Jules, that you have read other similar titles.

    It hits me this morning that I actually DO trust blog reviews (by bloggers I trust, I might add) more than print reviews when we’re talking about children’s books.

  2. Kelly, I see what you mean. I had thought that in that first paragraph Miller was saying she doesn’t care for Mieville’s other novels in their entirety, but I just checked again, and, yeah, she says she only read the first chapters of each one.

    I guess I would agree that I’ve “read other similar titles,” but let me make it clear that I’ve not read any other Mieville novels ’til this. My husband, actually, is a big fan of his novels, and it’s for that reason I knew who he was (I picked up this YA title with much pride, since my husband and I tease each other that we don’t tend to read the same books. I said with a big grin, ‘LOOK! I got a Mieville fantasy novel!’ and he actually read it, too — and enjoyed it. I even checked with him about that Library Journal comment about how the eroticism is omitted in this book, though it exists in his adult novels — their way of explaining what makes it “YA” — and he said, yep. It’s true).

    And, yeah, I see your larger point about trusting blog reviews. If you frequent the blog, trust their reviews, think they put some decent analysis into it, etc. etc., damn skippy it’s sometimes easier to trust what they’re saying over some print reviewers. But, yes, it’s all about trust, as you pointed out.

    If you read it, tell me what you think!

    For anyone interested, at the Random House interview I linked to, Mieville has some interesting thoughts on YA today.

  3. I have had a pending library request for this book for at least two months. I just received notification this morning that it has arrived. Woo hoo!

  4. Is this really a YA title? I am asking because I just looked it up, and it looks like my library put it in adult scifi. What ages of young adults would you give it to?

  5. My copy is in, too, and I can’t wait to read it now.

    “Oh, All Right Then”: Bartleby Returns?!? That’s HYSTERICAL!

  6. I absomalutely tend to trust blog reviews more than print, for the simple reason that through reading a blog, you discover which tastes you have in common, and can assess the reviews more accurately than a print review by a stranger. Which I guess has more to do with the nature of being able to ‘get to know’ a reviewer over a blog than with the actual print vs. online format. If I knew someone who wrote print reviews, the same would apply.

    At any rate, my point is that I would never pick up a book like this ordinarily, but now I just might grab it.

  7. This is a good book, and I’m glad to see you review it. It’s pretty appropriate that one of the scenes that you chose to discuss is Mr. Speaker, given how important wordplay is in this story, and how the words themselves take on a life and dimension, adding depth to the tale if you “get” the joke. (I was particularly amused when I realized just what the original weapon used to kill the Smog – the klinneract – was.) Gaiman’s Neverwhere is another fine example of this sort of style, and Pratchett’s (much more light-hearted) work, as well.

    One of the things that I really enjoy about this sort of story, though, is the sense of place. These ab-city/under-city/in-between city stories, really speak to my love of the lost and overlooked spaces in all of our towns – the sort of places that you know are full of the sort of history nobody will ever write down, or even notice, where you can really imagine something (or someone) just fading away altogether.

    Anyway, good review of a good read. I initially thought I was going to be very disappointed in this book, but then the story broke from the standard path of the predestined young hero/heroine. If you should feel the same, give it a few more pages, it’s worth it. 🙂

  8. Lindsey,

    Tough question (and I admit to being awful at the age range game). The two young girls in the book are twelve, and there’s nothing lascivious, if that’s what you mean, in the book. Some of the imagery, etc. is frightening (such as The Smog), but not in a way that is going to traumatize a teen. I think it’s definitely a cross-over title, which is why you might have seen it shelved in Adult, but it’s a great YA novel.

    You’ll see a link in my write-up about the author discussing YA novels. He definitely set out to write it for the YA crowd.

    Hope that answers your question, and I’m glad your comments finally made it in! I’ll try to keep my eye on that from now on. 🙂

  9. I finally obtained and read ULD. It was interesting and punny. I liked some parts better than others.

  10. […] Mmmm, I’m enjoying a bit of Baileys in my coffee as I type. Yum. (It also made my day when Blaine left a comment on my Un Lun Dun post; he’s not one for chatting on the ‘Net, but he’s obscenely smart and I […]

  11. […] fantasy, Un Lun Dun.  I only know Mieville as the guy who hates Tolkien, but apparently his book made some waves as a sort of anti-Harry Potter.  I asked Craig to share some of his thoughts on the blog, and boy […]

  12. […] of nexus of libraries, in Mieville’s imaginative YA novel about a distorted alternate London. The Extreme Librarians risk their lives in this universe of towering bookshelves to retrieve volumes, with picks in hand, sometimes having […]

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