China Miéville is a highly regarded new British SFF author but I'd never read any of his work, so I decided to pick up a copy of Un Lun Dun, which has received good reviews. I was initially somewhat disconcerted to read in the introduction that it was his first novel for "younger readers"; something I hadn't been aware of when I bought it. However, I am aware that this category includes some of the best fiction past and present, so after a few mental and physical warm-up exercises (the book has over 500 pages) I got stuck in.
The location is London, the time is the present, the focus on a pair of schoolgirl friends to whom unusual things seem to be happening. There are signs and portents that one of them - Zanna - is the subject of intense interest not just from strangers but from animals too. Together with her friend, the reluctant Deeba, she follows her instincts and the pair find themselves in a strange, distorted and magical version of the city: Un Lun Dun. It is filled with all of the rubbish which has been discarded by London, with houses built of old washing machines or gramophone records, and populated by an extraordinary mixture of fantastic individuals including ghosts and ferocious carnivorous giraffes. Red double-decker buses drift across the sky supported by balloons, while the London Eye (the UnLondon-I) is a giant water-wheel generating electricity.
This fantastical world is under threat - from the deadly Smog, which has grown so thick that it has developed a malign intelligence and aims to take over all of Un Lun Dun. Zanna turns out to be the Chosen One, long prophesied in a revered and rather talkative Book to be the agent of the Smog's destruction. She collects a disparate group of allies and begins to fulfil the prophecies.
So far, just a different take on a predictable plot. But the story doesn't stay predictable for long, with twist after twist throughout the novel, right to the end. To say any more would spoil the surprises, but suffice it to say that I read the book in only three sessions and finished with a smile on my face. It has likeable heroes and is packed full of original ideas; I particularly enjoyed the UnGun!
Stories like this make a stark contrast with most modern fantasy, which has become very derivative if not hackneyed. I will be reading more from this author.