Posts Tagged ‘Neverwhere’

Book Review – Un Lun Dun

Un Lun DunUn Lun Dun by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was pretty sure I was going to love this. After reading three of China Mieville’s novels, I was eager to get to this one. My only hesitation was that those others were written for adults, this one for older children and adolescents. Would a writer who’s mostly about leftist ideas, bizarre creatures, and coining multi-syllabic words really translate to juvenile fiction?

I need not have worried. This is a book I would have devoured as a twelve-year-old and still enjoy as an adult, with enough breadth and depth to draw readers back for the second, third, and twenty-third time. Except for a few missteps, which I’ll get to below, I would have given it five stars, no question.

I read this just after finishing Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, to compare how two different fantasy authors handle the alternative/underground city theme. Like Gaiman’s London Below, UnLondon (or Un Lun Dun, as the protagonist first hears it) is an alternative, magical version of London. In this universe, what’s discarded or obsolete in London seeps through a magical barrier into UnLondon, where it becomes part of a new urban ecosystem. Unlike London Below, which exists in the unseen and unused corners of London Above in Gaiman’s world, UnLondon is its own complete city, a kind of Wonderland, geographically distinct and difficult to get to without some otherworldly guidance.

Mieville has A LOT of fun with this premise. In this, his first book for “younger readers,” he drops the thick intellectualism of his other books and indicates that not only is he clever and imaginative, but he also has a sense of humor. Much of this comes in the wordplay: broken umbrellas become unbrellas in UnLondon. From Manifest Station you can take a train to Parisn’t or No York. A nine-wheeled vehicle is a noncycle…and so on. As in any Mieville story, we find weird and wonderful settings and characters whose very physiology defies expectations. Here, they are more fanciful than in his adult books: a tailor with a pincushion for a head; a birdcage-headed automaton whose consciousness is the canary who lives inside; a half-ghost, half-living boy; sentient books, words, umbrellas, smog, and an empty milk carton named Curdle.

But there’s much more than wonder here, there’s friends and foes and a quest and IDEAS. UnLondon has aspects of an eco-socialist utopia: mass transit takes you where you need to go at whatever price you can afford; “emptish” houses stand open for travelers, with food for the taking; an enormous waterwheel called the London-I provides hydroelectricity to the city; bus conductors and librarians are glorified and respected occupations; trash is re-purposed into building material. What’s discarded, unloved, and obsolete in London finds its/his/her purpose here. Yet this also puts UnLondon in danger: a massive cloud of chemical pollutants (seeped down from London over the years) has grown a mind of its own, and wants to take over, using its self-made minions of smog-junkies, smombies, and smoglodytes. A shadowy business association called the Concern supports cooperating with the Smog to build new factories, and someone in the British government may even be on the payroll…

Through the first two parts of the novel, Mieville shows he understands well the conventions of the genre and goes with them. A chosen one from London must come to UnLondon and defeat the Smog. She faces danger almost immediately, followed speedily by learning her destiny and acquiring some new allies. Indeed, there are even some shades of Harry Potter as the UnLondoners lavish praise on their bewildered heroine.

And then…Mieville stands it all on its head. There still is a quest. There still is a hero. And the Smog still has to be defeated. But none of it works out as the UnLondoners, or the reader, expects. Mieville walks a fine line, between reinventing the genre and tearing it to shreds. It works, in part, because he makes his protagonist practical and self-aware. She is not the kind of girl who’s going to be pushed around by a prophecy. So when she deviates from the heroic script, the reader wants to go with her because well, it feels like what I’d do in her situation (or what I like to think I’d do).

It also works because Mieville is a confirmed Marxist; he isn’t overly burdened by the individualist (and hierarchical) expectations of heroes that exist in a mainstream culture of blockbuster superheroes and prime-time cop dramas. The story shifts from a warrior-savior appearing to protect the peaceful kingdom, to a renegade whistle blower gathering allies at the grassroots, and we go with it precisely because it isn’t the heroic quest we’re used to. It’s new and unexpected, a story we’re excited to follow, with real suspense.

And may I say what a relief it is not to turn off my political mind when reading a novel? To cheer wholeheartedly for the protagonist and the way she accomplishes her mission, to nod along in agreement when the true friends and foes are revealed and think, “Yep, just like real life,” and not have to pretend that the hero isn’t going to become a cult of personality that destroys everything after the book has ended? Generally, Un Lun Dun’s heroine succeeds because she finds allies who can stop the gears of the machine–the little guys who know how stuff works–and because she liberates as she goes. E.g., four chapters take place in The Talklands section of UnLondon, in which the heroine persuades sentient words (“utterlings”) to rebel against their tyrannical ruler, Mr. Speaker. The episode is both a philosophically potent meditation on the nature of language, and a revolutionary fairy tale about the power of the people. Later, when our heroine discovers how she can help unbrellas become rebrellas (like rebels, get it?), she reflects how people always fight harder when they’ve freely chosen to. The vested, recognized centers of authority in UnLondon (and London, too) turn out to be dupes at best or vile tyrants at worst. When London police show up, Mieville captures the mix of bribe and veiled threat that cops offer in the real-world to oppressed people. He writes a deliciously tense good-cop-bad-cop routine that had me squirming as I read. Another novelist would have made the good cop, well, good. Mieville even manages to surpass some of the latent speciesism that I’ve found in his other books. In Un Lun Dun, humans, canaries, half-ghosts, and sea creatures are all integral parts of the team, dutifully mourned and honored.

There are some typos and small continuity problems, like a character exiting the scene and then reappearing suddenly on the next page, things one more round of copy editing could have easily fixed. More critically, the story, at over 400 pages, is probably longer than it has to be, and started to meander for me about two thirds of the way in, about the point when Mieville had messed with the heroic quest script so much that I started wonder where the plot could possibly go now. Things pick up speedily again a few chapters later, building to the ultimate confrontation. For that, we can all cheer.

UN LUN DUN!

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Book Review – Neverwhere

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been on my list to read for years. Gaiman’s other work, like American Gods and the Sandman series, has never failed to impress, weaving new mythologies out of old. Too, among my circle of friends and fellow writers, Neverwhere is a touchstone for the “under city” story, the sort of tale that tells us that a magical, through-the-looking-glass version of our everyday world is right here alongside it, if we could only find the right key, magic mirror, or door.

And this novel starts with Door, to be more precise, a young woman from the other side of London (“London Below,” as Gaiman calls it) whose noble family is known for their special knack for opening things–doors, boxes, portals. She’s the lone survivor after her parents and siblings are murdered, and now the hired killers are chasing her down, too. Injured, she opens a portal into London Above–the London we know in the ordinary world. Thus, the events of the novel are set in motion. It will follow Door’s quest to find out who killed her family and why, of course, and eventually to overcoming the villain behind it all. There will be a cryptic message in her father’s journal, a floating market, a magical key, allies and adversaries, and betrayal. Of course. The lovely thing about reading Gaiman is that, as when reading a fairy tale or ancient epic, somehow knowing the beats of the story doesn’t eliminate the tension, the surprises, or suspense. We want to know as much as Door does what is really going on in London Below.

Door’s name is literally her function in the story. The protagonist is actually Richard, whose interaction with Door leads him into the story. A typical Gaiman everyman, the sort of basically decent, passive guy Simon Pegg usually plays, Richard comes from the ordinary world. For the sin of helping Door when she is wounded, he finds his regular existence erased from London Above. His co-workers and fiancée don’t recognize him, his apartment is let out to new tenants, and the ATM doesn’t register his PIN number. As he is forced to pass into London Below, it’s primarily through Richard’s eyes that Gaiman reveals the under city, a technique that lets the reader get extended exposition about the place. Richard asks the questions and says aloud what the reader is thinking. But he is not just a device, Richard is an effective and sympathetic character in his own right: the ordinary man who, for once, has to reconsider his life and what he wants from it, instead of what’s comfortable and easy. It bodes well for him that his first significant act is helping a stranger on the street, when his fiancée and the world around him advise callous indifference. Does Richard find he has reserves of strength he never knew he had? We know from the beginning he will, and yet it’s no less satisfying when he does.

To create London Below, where people who “fell through the cracks” end up, Gaiman takes the abandoned and underground parts of real London, and spins them into something magical and just this side of bizarre. Much of it comes from imaginative leaps off the subway map. Earl’s Court turns into a subway car containing a moldering medieval court. Blackfriars is an order of monks who pose a series of three trials to obtain a magical key. Knightsbridge is a real bridge where Night (no K) is a potent darkness that torments and even kills those who trying to cross. Hammersmith is a blacksmith, there are real shepherds in Shepherd’s Bush, and a real angel named Islington under Angel. The boundary between London Above and London Below is porous, so that the floating market of London Below can easily take over Harrod’s for an evening, and yet metaphysically rigid: residents of London Below are all but invisible to those in Above–overlooked, ignored, and forgotten as soon as they are spotted or heard.

This includes several characters who are basically the homeless of London, living in its sewers and abandoned tunnels, and busking for money in the Underground. Animals–pigeons, rats, and one significant piglet–pass between the two Londons unnoticed. A more ideological writer than Gaiman might make some commentary out of this; the idea of society’s castoffs living in a shadowy netherworld has obvious sociopolitical implications. But Gaiman is more interested in the magical and cosmic than the political, and the story never takes on a class analysis, or environmental parable, or sympathetic interest in the lives of animals. That piglet only matters because, having escaped from the butcher centuries ago, s/he has grown into a monstrous Beast, ready to menace our heroes.

That’s not to say the story is unsatisfying, or lacks progressive qualities. It’s refreshing how readily Gaiman populates his story with female and non-white characters, without making a big deal about it. As in real-world London, characters are as likely to be dark or brown or female as anything else. That includes the Marquis de Carabas, a tour-de-force trickster-type who aids Door because “she’ll owe him a very big favor.” De Carabas was easily my favorite character, a man with flair and confidence to spare, and a keen dislike of admitting ignorance about anything (maybe this is something we have in common). I kept waiting for the moment he tipped from lovable rogue to treacherous villain…and that’s a fine line for an author to walk. Gaiman does it well.

And then there’s Hunter. She’s a legendary warrior and well, hunter, hired to be Door’s bodyguard. She’s laconic, beautiful, caramel-skinned, amazing in combat, and a wee bit sarcastic. I immediately liked her. (What is it about female warriors we just can’t get enough of? Atalanta, Xena, Buffy, Brienne…) As some of Hunter’s back story is revealed and her primary motivation (to put another notch on her belt by killing the Beast) I was still on board. The character felt vibrant and noble, and while I didn’t like her occupation, I liked her. Alas, ultimately, the gender-bending aspect of Hunter became less important to me than the story’s implicit glorification of hunting. It occurred to me, three-quarters of the way through, that I was cheering for a character who’s really the fantasy equivalent of a big-game hunter. In the end, while Gaiman is often amazingly imaginative and unique and surprising, he isn’t writing anything new. The Beast dies in the end, because the Beast exists in the story to be a monster for the hero to slay. While Neverwhere may be creating a new mythology, there’s no new model of heroism.

The novel is well-worth the reading, though, for the images, for the characters, for the setting–to open the possibilities of what an author could do with this sort of tale. In the way I loved American Gods and Sandman, I loved Neverwhere, like candy to my myth-soaked mind.

From here, I’m moving on to Un Lun Dun, China Mieville’s novel with a similar, alterna-London theme.

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