520 pages, Macmillan
Review by Marc Nash
Un Lun Dun is an abcity. A sort of inverse of our own cities. Made up of all the detritus and refuse rejected by us in the course of our daily living. So Un Lun Dun is constructed from broken umbrellas and unwanted goldfish flushed down our toilets. And Miéville does construct a wondrously imaginative world. But herein lies my first problem with how it's offered up. The phantasmagoric creations come so thick and fast, the reader is not permitted a mental pause to contemplate and bask in them (a few do have sketched cartoons dotted throughout the book to aid our teeming minds).
So in many places the book doesn't breathe and yet in other places, where the characters themselves take a break from the action, the book sags under its improbable and poorly drawn characterisation. The main character schoolgirl Deeba is engaged on a quest within Un Lun Dun and forms deep, emotional friendships incredibly quickly which determine her loyalties and decisions in an incredulous way. And as Miéville ramps up the phantasmagoric powers of the baddies who seem to hold all the aces, somehow Deeba takes an intuitive and unfounded decisive act that sweeps them away. Author ex machina as she guesses right every time, within this upside down and inside out world that supposedly operates counter-intuitively. I've found this in all three Miéville books I've read now. A certain carelessness or actual indifference towards both characterisation and plot resolutions. Maybe because for Miéville, all the fun lies in ushering forward the next set of fantastical creations from his fertile mind.
There are some redeeming setpieces. There's an excellent riff on words taking physical form and the author has great fun at the expense of prophecy and myth that turn out to be wide of the mark. In fact I would employ the word 'riff' for his writing throughout this book. The novel is a piece of virtuoso work, a constant guitar solo with riffs off the main theme. But ultimately it strikes me as self-indulgent because the rest of the arrangement doesn't seem to be in place. The rhythm section as it were. Throughout the book, the writer part of me kept wondering whether most of the words came out all of a piece and no further work on them undertaken. Unutterably pointing to the strength of Miéville's creative imagination for this wonderful array of original and unique beings and yet also containing an inbuilt smugness that their creation was sufficient, that their phantasmagoric nature didn't require a correlative logic to be developed alongside them. For a world of alternative realities, so much of the plot tramps along in the most mundane of human fashion.
Yes, this book is mainly for young adults, so that maybe their demands on credible character and plot devices might not be so rigorous as mine, but for the third time I feel a little cheated at a half-baked execution. I keep reading him to try and get under the skin of Miéville's cult status. But each time I am left outside, failing to become a convert. And yet I persist, because I know the ideas present are inherently fascinating, if only he could embed them in a fully crafted work of literature.