The Short Version: Two twelve year old girls discover a way into a strange city below / adjacent to / across from London, called UnLondon. One of them is apparently the chosen one, meant to save the city from a horrible Smog… but when the prophecy turns out to be maybe-not-quite-so-correct, it’s her friend who steps up to try and save the day.
The Review: I’ll admit that I was a little worried when I heard about this particular Miéville. A London comprised of things that are lost or thrown away? Sounds not entirely unlike Neil Gaiman’s superlative Neverwhere – and Miéville tosses him a particular shout-out in the acknowledgements, as his influence is abundantly clear. But Miéville is also a damned smart writer and he manages to turn the concept into something completely different from Gaiman’s, delivering another entry into the canon of (as he puts it) “phantasmagorical London” that deserves the space it makes for itself.
The concept behind UnLondon (as well as No York, Romeless, Parisn’t, and so on) is that things find their way down there once there’s no use for them anymore in what we consider “proper” London. Broken umbrellas, old buses, discarded books… it’s a place of lost or forgotten things and Miéville has a ball creating it. He’s even included some of his own illustrations throughout – this is, ostensibly, a book for “all ages” which means it’s a YA novel that parents can be encouraged/allowed to read too – which help give a delightful sense of the city beyond even what his words can do. For example, as a street is described while the main characters float over it in a bus (long story), that same street plays out along the bottom of the page and so we see the house that is just a huge shelving unit, the one that’s a battered top hat, and so on. It’s a little thing, but it gives us another half-step into the world that Miéville is creating and, more broadly, into his brilliant and fertile mind.
It wouldn’t be a Miéville novel without some high-functioning idea, of course, and while it’s a little easier to stomach than most of his other work (again, written with the wee folk in mind), it’s still a bold and exciting twist on the ordinary. There are actually, now that I think about it, two bold ideas in this novel – one being, of course, the city and its contents (the UnGun and its environs being a particularly inspired moment of creativity, as well as the way the residents of UnLondon mishear certain things that become “Armets” and “Klinneract” – the reveal of those made me shout) but the other being the twist on traditional hero narratives. There is a prophecy and a chosen one (the Schwazzy, which is itself a bastardization of the French choisi) but when the prophecy is revealed to be incorrect, there’s a major crisis. The prophetic book, who can also speak, goes into a sulk and no one is quite sure what to do – until the best friend of the supposedly-chosen-one steps up and takes charge. A story that features the supporting characters of traditional fantasy adventures as the lead characters is not unknown or unusual (Patrick Ness delivered a great riff on it in The Rest of Us Just Live Here) but Miéville takes care in setting up the switcheroo (even thought it’s clearly forthcoming from the start, at least to this reader) and he makes it fit into the entire larger concept of the novel/city in a way that is terribly clever.
Fantasy novels live and die, in terms of how memorable they are, by their world-building and this one is no exception. I’ve already mentioned the joy of the literal world but its the characters too that make this one sing. Brokkenbroll, the master of the unbrellas (broken umbrellas from London, arrived in UnLondon), is a particularly creepy and inspired creation. But a half-ghost, a tailor whose head is a pincushion and whose clothes are made out of the paper of books, an old-school bus conductor, even a semi-sentient milk carton – all of these creations are vivid and delightful, sticking around in the mind long after they’ve slipped off the page. UnLondon feels as vivid as London Below or the magical London of the Peter Grant novels, like it exists right alongside them.
The only problem with the book is that it does run a bit long. Miéville takes his time with the bait-and-switch of “chosen ones” but he does so at nearly the length of his most recent novel (This Census Taker), which leaves a reader with a bit of discomfort: that first adventure was only a prelude to the real adventure? And the true adventure of the back half of the novel only highlights how false-start-y the early adventure really was. It was all in service, of course, of his greater goal regarding the UnChosen One – but I can’t help wondering if the same result could’ve been achieved with a little more economy. Still, it’s never a bad thing to spend a little more time in China Miéville’s world(s).
Rating: 4 out of 5. Yes, it runs a little long and feels a little padded at times (nearly 200 pages that end up being a feint is… too many pages of feinting) but Miéville has created a parallel/alternate London that earns its stripes. His usual inventiveness is distilled a bit into a more traditional storytelling vibe, perfect for the wider audience he intended for the book – and he feels more like Gaiman here than anywhere else. (That’s a good thing, by the way.) Coupled with his delightful illustrations and a smart twist on the typical tale of the Chosen One, it’s hard not to enjoy this book, even if you don’t enjoy it as much as some of his other work.