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The Unchosen One: China Miéville's Un Lun Dun

I'm currently devouring the works of China Miéville and have reviewed Perdido Street Station and The City and the City in this blog. The author's offhand remark about wanting to write a book in every genre has been taken seriously by his readers, and so far he has indeed written a novel in most major genres!

Un Lun Dun is his first book marketed for young adults. If you want an introduction to Miéville, this is a good start if Perdido Street Station or his other books are too intimidating.

The story revolves around two young girls, Zanna and Deeba. Zanna is tall and blonde, Deeba has dark hair and on the shorter side. They are best friends in school, but one day they find a weird umbrella that moves on its own. They find a mysterious wheel somewhere in London's pipes, and soon find a switch that turns off the whole city of London and they find themselves in another city... UnLondon, where all the trash and forgotten things of London end up.

In UnLondon, all sorts of fantastic creatures live. They first meet Obaday, a tailor who sews clothes out of books. There's the sentient milk carton that gets attached to Deeba. There's a guy called Brokenbroll who trains broken umbrellas to fight. UnLondon is a vast surreal landscape that reminds me of the surreal paintings of Dali or Magritte. Soon, the arrival of Zanna creates a sensation among the "Propheseers" - prophets working in an office full of typewriters. Zanna fits the description of the Schwazzy, the prophesied hero destined to defeat UnLondon's enemy, the smoky entity known as The Smog. The Smog seems to want UnLondon to burn (like most villains do).

This prophecy, of course, is contained in a sacred book which also happens to walk and talk. However, the book seems to be wrong in some places (which is a surprise to itself). When the Smog unexpectedly attacks, Zanna becomes unconscious and they have to go back to London for her to recover. The people they met in UnLondon find that they can defeat the Smog by themselves.

However, Deeba discovers something in London that implies something for Unlondon. Deeba suspects that who they think as allies may be puppets of the Smog. Deeba returns to Unlondon and embarks on a quest to defeat it. She works with Hemi, a half-ghost, Curdle the milk carton, and the sentient prophecy book. Like in all hero themes, they must get the "seven magic objects" that will defeat the enemy.

What I like about the book is how it inverts the usual stereotypes and themes in a usual fairy tale or hero story. Deeba instead of Zanna is the "Unchosen One" who actually saves the day. When she goes to find the weapons, she doesn't waste time getting seven magic objects one after another. Why do that when you can actually just get the big ultimate weapon that will defeat the big ultimate enemy?

As for the setting, the author shines again in creating UnLondon. Each new creature introduced is delightful and quirky. The story reminds me of those classic "girl goes to another world" theme like Spirited Away, Alice in Wonderland, and (my favorite) Wizard of Oz. It's also made better by the accompanying illustrations drawn by the author, they're charming and fun as well.

I don't read much Young Adult books but this is added to my list of favorites. Though marketed for a younger age group, it's a story that people of all ages can read and enjoy.

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