Friday, November 23, 2012

China Mieville's wild worlds

Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun
By China Mieville
(Del Rey)

      The success of such tween series as Twilight, Hunger Games and Harry Potter (at least the latter books) has proven there's money to be made in the young adult market, especially with a science fiction or fantasy background. Many authors of non-tween lit have caught on and are writing their own. 
     One example you probably haven't found (but for which you should look) is China Mieville. The British author has been writing strange, complex  adult fantasy and weird fiction -- Embassytown, Kraken and The City and the City -- since at least 1999, but a few years ago cracked a young adult novel. He has just written a new one -- Railsea, which is sort of a fantasy take on Moby Dick (Mieville meets Melville) -- but instead I’m going to look at two of his older books: Perdido Street Station (2000), the first of several set in the fantasy world of Bas-Lag, where magic and steam technology mix, and Un Lun Dun (2007), a young adult novel set in UnLondon, a shadowy magical counterpart to the real world’s London, filled with people and things that fell through the cracks.

Original cover art for Perdido Street Station from

     Perdido was Mieville’s second published novel, and the second that I read. It also seems to be one of his most popular. I liked it better than anything I’d read recently except Windup Girl, and it had been sitting on my bookshelf for close to 10 years unread. (That sometimes happens when you buy as many books as I do; it’s not even a record.)
 Random House
     As I said above, it’s set in the fantasy world of bas-lag, specifically in and around the city of New Crobunzon, which was built amid the bones (in the rib cage) of an immense animal from long ago. It’s a land where magic (thaumaturgy) co-exists with industrial age tech, where monstrosities (some man-made) co-exist with humans.
     The plot revolves around Isaac, a sort of hermetic philosopher-scientist, who is approached by Yagharek, a garuda (a sort of winged man) who has lost his wings and wants Isaac to restore to him the power of flight (not necessarily with new wings). Yagharek doesn’t say how he lost his wings, but apparently it was for some crime in his native land. 
     While Isaac studies as many winged creatures as he can get his hands on (to figure out the best way to let Yagharek fly again), he purchases a cocoon containing a strange type of moth, and thus sets the book’s tragedy in motion. It grows into an immense moth-like humanoid creature that sucks people’s minds. Too much of the novel involves the quest to stop these creatures, actually, but the world and the creatures in this world are what make the book so enthralling.

     That's the main plot, but there other significant characters, including Lin -- Isaac’s lover, who is a khepri (a sort of red-skinned woman whose head is a giant beetle) and an artist (she secretes a substance that can be used for intricate sculptures) -- and the city of New Crobunzon itself.
      Eventually Yagharek’s crime is revealed, the threat of the moth men is arrested, and many people die. Everything does not end happily, although it ends less unhappily than it could have.

Cover image from Amazon UK, featuring illustration by China Mieville
     Un Lun Dun similarly explores another world, full of many strange creatures and people, though this one is tethered quite clearly to London. Zanna and Deeba, two young girls, begin noticing strange phenomena, and references to Zanna -- the pretty, blond, popular one -- as “the Shwazzy,” which leads to their entering Un London, a distorted reflection of the familiar city full of discarded items and people, beset by a smog monster (nothing like the one Godzilla faced in the 1970s) and defended by “unbrellas” (umbrellas from London that are damaged so they can no longer serve their original functions).  
Random House
      The Shwazzy is the chosen one (from the French choisir, meaning to choose), as revealed by a talking book, but in their first skirmish with the smog monster and his allies, Zanna is incapacitated. Then Deeba discovers that one of Un London’s so-called defenders is really aiding the smog creature, and she must step into the Shwazzy’s role despite the book’s prophecy being revealed as more or less hooey.
     Un Lun Dun is also a little on the long side (though not as long as some of the of the Harry Potter series), but full of inventive characters and critters. Mieville himself drew the many little drawings that pepper the book.
     Other characters include a half-ghost boy and a sentient and ambulatory milk carton.
     Mieville eschews the usual fantasy quest cliches. For example, when Deeba is told that they have to find seven objects to complete a quest, and then learning that each object is only needed to obtain the following object, she decides they should just go and get the seventh one right away. (That object isn't a sword or amulet either, but an Un Gun, a revolver that does different things depending upon what has been placed into its chambers (seeds, ants, etc.).

     Mieville's other books feature concepts such as two cities that overlap the same geography, but the inhabitants are trained not to perceive the others, and the disappearance of  a giant squid from a museum which sparks an apocalypse.

     Mieville's not for all tastes, he's worth checking out if you're looking for inventive, dark urban fantasy.


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