S. Jae-Jones, a host of one of my favorite podcasts, Pub Crawl Podcast, recommended the children’s book Un Lun Dun by China Miéville for readers who love Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth. I do love both of those books. I’ve reread Alice in Wonderland multiple times, and I strongly considered doing a book report on The Phantom Tollbooth in fourth grade but couldn’t figure out how to obtain the refrigerator box I felt was necessary to pull it off. So, I decided to take a look at Un Lun Dun and decide: To read or not to read?
What is Un Lun Dun?
It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up . . . and some of its lost and broken people, too–including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion, and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book.
When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong.
This sounds weird, and I like it. A talking book? Wonderland vibes? Ancient prophecy? Yes, please. There aren’t many books in which the setting is as important or more important than the characters and the plot, but based on this summary, I’m guessing that’s the case here (as it is in Alice in Wonderland, for instance). The setting sounds fascinating, and I enjoy books about characters finding portals into other worlds.
The summary hooks me; I hope the writing can deliver.
This cover is creepy AF. The child’s eyes are too far apart and way too reminiscent of those Coraline button eyes. Based on the cover, this book may be a little darker than I imagined.
“In an unremarkable room, in a nondescript building, a man sat working on very non-nondescript theories.”
I want to say it feels Kafkaesque even though I haven’t *read* Kafka. But the whole “boring office” thing feels very Kafkaesque. My interest is piqued; I want to know who this man is and what kind of theories he’s working on.
I love the word choice of “non-nondescript.” The double negation is cool, the repetition of “nondescript” from the last phrase is good, and overall, it’s a more interesting word choice than “intelligent” or “new” or “original” or even “remarkable.” Already in the first line of the story, this word choice hints at wordplay, clever prose, and things being turned on their head.
Full disclosure: That’s the first line of the prologue. The first line of the first chapter is a bit more boring: “There was no doubt about it: there was a fox behind the climbing frame.” It’s the second sentence that kicks the writing into full speed: “And it was watching.” These two sentences suggest an animal that’s not quite of this world—foxes do not normally watch people—and immediately, we wonder what this fox is and why it’s watching these people.
First 5 pages
The prologue is cinematic; I can see it unfolding in front of me. That said, it also feels a bit cliche, but that could be because I’ve watched so many episodes of Supernatural that I do not feel surprised when the lights start dimming and black smoke billows into a room. Still, I wonder how this prologue will tie into the two children characters described in the summary.
Miéville masterfully sets up characters, setting, and mood in the first chapter; it’s vivid and original enough that my fears about the slightly cliche prologue are assuaged. I know that the setting is London and that the main characters are schoolgirls on the playground. I know that it’s unusual to see a fox in the middle of London, much less a busy schoolyard, and it’s especially unusual that the fox is watching the girls and not moving. I know that it’s a cold, gray autumn day and that weird things are happening. Even in just five pages, I feel like I’m there with the girls in that scene. And I suspect that these girls, especially the one a fox is staring at, will soon embark on an adventure, and I’m excited to tag along.
The writing style is easy to read, but clever. Phrases like “those beautiful curves of animal panic” excite me—I know I’m in for a well-written book.
I love the moment when the girls and the fox seem “to get lost in something” and then the school bell breaks the moment. Miéville lets me linger on the moment just long enough, letting me get lost in something, too, until he pulls me out with the ellipses and the sound of the school bell. With such a small moment being so well-paced in the first few pages, I’m looking forward to more moments like this in the rest of the book.
I was promised wordplay from J.J.’s recommendation, and so far, other than “non-nondescript,” there hasn’t been much. But this doesn’t bother me because I assume the wordplay will start once we get to the alternative universe of Un Lun Dun.
I hypothesized earlier that this book wouldn’t focus on characters so much as the setting, and from what I’ve read so far, I’m feeling confident in this prediction. The first scene in which Zanna and Deeba approach the fox shows that they’re the confident ones, the girls ready to get into an adventure. But then the next few paragraphs are telling about Zanna instead of showing. That’s fine, given the context. It’s a children’s book, and we need to know something about the main characters before we take off on an adventure into an unknown world, but it’s not my favorite way to get to a know a character.
As for Deeba, I don’t know much about her based on this first chapter. She doesn’t do much other than reference “Little Red Riding Hood” and point out that the whole fox situation is odd.
To read or not to read
This book is sufficiently intriguing. The concept of an alternative London is wonderful, the characters seem like they won’t be awful, and the writing is good. And, of course, I want the wordplay I’ve been promised. Although I haven’t read children’s books in a long time, I will likely find myself buying and reading Un Lun Dun soon.