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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Monday, March 05, 2007

Thank Goodness An Adult Writer Has Written A Children's Book

I've been thinking of reading something by China Mieville for years. As with so many other things in life, I just haven't gotten around to it. Now he has written a children's book, which seems like a good excuse to give him a try.

I have not yet read his Un Lun Dun and only just heard of it about twenty minutes ago. What I have read is Laura Miller's glowing review, Un Lun Dun, in Salon. She comes to praise Mieville but also to bash kidlit.

Miller says, '"Un Lun Dun" is not only sleek of line and endlessly (but not needlessly) inventive, it also offers a nimble, undidactic antidote to all the dubious clichés of the genre. Sick of seemingly insignificant characters who discover they have a secret identity and a momentous destiny? Tired of stories that hinge on cryptic prophecies and the retrieval of magical talismans? Miéville dares to insist that nerve, heart and determination is all a hero(ine) really needs.'

Build up Mieville's book by knocking down a whole genre. Yet according to Miller, Un Lun Dun is set in an alternative London. How many alternative world books exist in children's literature? We're not exactly talking a revolutionary new concept here.

Miller also says, "The authors of children's books have always had remarkable leeway when it comes to echoing the classics. Sometimes the results are merely derivative, but in this case the allusions to Carroll and Baum and Norton Juster and Gaiman only highlight how original "Un Lun Dun" feels."

"Sometimes the results are merely derivative..." is a statement that really needs some documentation of some kind. Also, as much as I've liked Neil Gaiman's writing for adults, he seems a little young to be referred to as a writer of "classics."

I really want to read Un Lun Dun, and I certainly hope I'll like it because I don't enjoy spending time reading books I dislike. But this review has set my teeth on edge so that I'm not going to be going into it with an open mind. Oh, well. Maybe by the time I finally read the book I'll have forgotten about the review. Let's hope.

Another, less worshipful, review of Un Lun Dun appeared in The Los Angeles Times.

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