Rachel beat me to this way ahead of the game (ahem, like January 14th), and posted her review of the book last week. Having now finished the book and given myself some time to stew and meditate upon it, I feel ready to do my own.
Timing on this one was really good, as The Boy and I had just finished watching the Neverwhere series in December and what more fitting transition into my book life than to read the exploration — of school-aged girls, this time — into an Alternate London? (And lest any of you think I’m not giving Mr. Miéville the creative credit he deserves, he himself thanks Neil Gaiman at the end of the book, citing Neverwhere as major inspiration for the story. So there. Yes, I do read the introductions and dedications of stories. What?)
Un Lun Dun starts off quite similarly to most children’s fantasy novels: heroine sees strange signs about her, heroine follows intuition/prophecy, heroine ends up in alternate universe, antics ensue, heroine finds her way home. Except that in this case, all of that gets wrapped up around a third of the way through the book. Where Un Lun Dun really gets going is when the (none too subtly annoyed at being the sidekick) sidekick takes matters into her own hands and goes back.
I enjoyed the neatly-twinned lessons of not taking Other Peoples’ prejudices on as your own (Hemi) and not taking people you meet at face value (Brokk). The cast of characters is very colourful, with all kinds of puns-brought-to-life scattered about the place (must be a UK thing?) although these more for imagery than moral teachings (as in Phantom Tollbooth). There’s also some very heavy-handed “green” motifs (save the environment, kids!) here with the biggest lesson probably being that “trash” doesn’t just vanish because you no longer have it in your hand. All waste and by-products have to go Somewhere; and don’t just assume that governments and grown-ups will tidy it away either.
(Do you get the feeling Mr. Miéville is a bit of a cynic? I learned, in talking to Mike, that he’s apparently written some good non-children’s fiction as well, so possibly I’ll check it out sometime.)
Overall, the story seemed to me to be a heart-over-head story: as much as people (Zanna) try to play by the rules, do things the “right” way and argue their way civilly out of problems where possible, sometimes, what’s really needed is someone who cares enough (Deeba) to just hoe in and get ‘er done. That was my interpretation anyway. Right, onto the “discussion”:
1 – The girls trust pretty much everyone they meet implicitly, until proven wrong. This applies to both individuals and larger organizations (i.e. the government and bus conductors). Is this an attitude that’s healthy to promote for young readers?
While there is definitely much to be lauded in being open-hearted to the good in everyone, it’s also a theme that’s a little tricky to offer to kids. After all, not everyone is looking out for their best interests. Does Miéville get around this by making individuals entrusted generally good, while the roles of bad guys were played by organizations and abstracts? Is that a healthy message to be sending to readers?
I liked quite a lot that there were betrayals, and role reversals in the characters the girls encounter, and I think Miéville does a good job balancing when trust pays off along with when it backfires. (I found the Extreme Librarian case to be a heart-rending but realistic example of the kind of betrayal that probably happens all the time.)
Better still, I like the way the aloof, disinterested girls (the schoolmates of Zanna and Deeba) are the ones unwilling to trust and See, and that they are the ones doomed to miss out on the adventure. I think Miéville includes enough bad to warn the reader, while giving them the motivation to at least look for potential in those they meet.
2 – Deeba, the “true” heroine, at one point goes on a rant about being the UnChosen — the girl who’s there to clean up the mess, even though she’s just a “sidekick” — and how insulting the very concept of a “sidekick” is, to define someone’s existence merely in relation to another (more important) person’s. Is this a warning against self-centredness? Or a call to Do What’s Right whether or not you get the credit?
Not being a parent or a teacher, I admit freely that I have no idea how to properly arm a young mind for life in our society. If I were to make an educated guess though, one of my top 5 for sure would be that it is way more important to be happy with your own view of yourself than it is to make Other People happy with their view.
While Deeba is absolutely right, that describing any person as a sidekick is degrading to them, it also puts the focus on external judgement — which makes it a little hard to reinforce the notion that doing the right thing is its own reward. I’m probably reading too much into this: after all, Deeba did go back and face down UnLondon’s foes without being asked, and with barely any help — surely I can accept that a school-aged girl would feel unappreciated and a little whiny under the circumstances? Fair enough.
Is this story also a warning for those more like Zanna (or her other school friends) — those that might not normally put themselves into the less blonde, less skinny, less popular boots of their “sidekicks”? Maybe. That message is definitely secondary if it’s there, though.
3 – If umbrellas (or unbrellas, rather) hadn’t been available, what other detritus would you consider worthy of rescuing and uniting into a group?
Personally, I was disappointed not to see a Paper Spirit, or at least NewsPaper Hobo. Given the possibilities of paper (razor sharp! plastered into thick, protective wodges! able to act as clothes and shelter!), it seems that there should definitely have been someone organizing the amounts that must wind up in UnLondon daily. Or maybe that’s getting a little too Read Or Die for the story.
4 – Rachel posed this question, and I’m stealing it: What would have changed, if anything, if Zanna showed up in UnLondon after Deeba climbed into the Wordhoard Pit?
I think the whole story would have had a different impetus. Rather than being about not relying on prophecy, on likelihoods or odds, but going with the strength of a small group of determined, resourceful individuals who trust each other, the story would have been about friendship. The girls would no doubt have argued (because Zanna would likely have tried to do things by the book while Deeba would have argued that the book knows nothing) but they would have compromised and blended ideas.
As it was, Un Lun Dun had Deeba basically calling all the shots, and relying on luck and her newfound friends when the plans went awry. With Zanna there, they might have played more of a political game, or they might have opened Brokk’s eyes earlier, or, or, or.
I think the book would have ended up being a lot less about individuality and the importance of playing to your own strengths, and more just a story of two girls on an adventure.
5 – On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate this book?
4. It was very enjoyable with likeable (yet flawed) characters, and enough fun details (binja! heh!) that I’d probably flip through it again in a few years.
So January wraps up, and soon I’ll start in on Rachelle’s selection, When You Reach Me, which also seems to have a bit of a fantasy lean. Thanks to everyone who’s participating!