By: China Miéville (Del Rey/Ballantine, 432 pp.)
Concerning: Two schoolgirl pals in London discover a weird, whimsical and hazardous alternate version of the city, called "UnLondon" or "Un Lon Don," where they try to defend the city from a monstrous threat, as foretold by a distressingly unreliable prophesy. The author also provides the witty illustrations, often in the margins.
Quote: "Yorick Cavea was a tall man. He wore a silk dressing gown and held a glass of whiskey or something. But on his human shoulders, Cavea's head was an old-fashioned bell-shaped birdcage. Inside it was a mirror, a cuttlefish bone, and a small pretty bird gripping a little swing. The bird chirped."
Verdict: Wonderful. I can't say that I'm a big fan of Un Lun Dun as a title (it sounds more like the name of a baby panda), but Miéville's first novel for young adults proves worthy of being in the company of its obvious influences like The Phantom Tollbooth, NeverWhere and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Miéville clearly takes great pleasure in taking some of the conventions of young adult fantasy novels like Harry Potter books, with quests and Chosen Heroes, and purposefully turning them on their heads. (moroccomole, I think you'd particularly dig these aspects of the book.) Some sequences might be a bit too scary for little kids, like the ones involving the carnivorous giraffes or the spidery Black Windows, but I don't think it's too intense for any who've read the recent Harry Potters. The anti-government, people-have-the-power themes are even more pronounced than Rowling's. It takes about 50 pages to warm up and some of the puns are groaners, but otherwise Un Lun Dun is an exciting book of ceaseless invention, surreal imagery and clever wordplay, such as the mention of a book called Oh, All Right Then: Bartleby Returns (presumably a lost manuscript by Herman Melville). At times it feels like you're reading imagery from Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animation, or Yellow Submarine, or an XTC album like Sklylarking or Nonsuch. So when's the sequel?
Unanswered Question: At one point a character talks about how words don't always mean what they should or do what you want, and mentions "That old book with a girl's name that just sounds rude now." Darnit, I can't figure out which one. Heidi? No. Pollyanna? No. The Misadventures of Mulva? Probably not.