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April 2007
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville,
Del Rey, 2007, $17.95.

I WANTED to like this book a lot more than I did. I certainly went into it with a positive attitude. After all, this is China Miéville, whose King Rat was easily one of the best debuts our field had seen in a long time. It was inventive and beautifully written, with deeply rendered characters and a plot that never quite went where you expected it to, but oh, the places it did take you.

Miéville followed that debut with a number of other books, each of which upped the ante and delivered.

And now we have Un Lun Dun.

Which is not a terrible book, by any means. The prose is as strong as ever, and if anything, it's his most inventive book to date. However.…

It's being marketed as a YA book for all ages, but I think that the only readers who will be deeply satisfied will be very young ones. Teens and up are going to be disappointed, which is too bad, because the good parts are as good as anything Miéville has given us to date.

The story follows Deeba, a young London girl whose best friend Zanna is the Chosen One who will save unLondon, a twin city in another dimension, or perhaps just a few steps sideways from the original, that grew out of all the unwanted bits of our London. But things don't work out quite the way the two would hope.

What's good?

The ideas are fabulous. Miéville has more fascinating ideas in every few pages than most writers do in an entire novel. And they just keep coming: whimsical, strange, even horrifying.

And then there's the way he subverts the tropes of fantasy novels. I'd tell you exactly how, but I don't want to spoil the story for you. Read the book and you'll quickly see what I mean.

What doesn't work?

Unfortunately, the characters are all flat. This is an "events" novel from start to finish, one event leading breathlessly into the next, and that's the book's other problem. It's much too busy.

Those fabulous ideas I mentioned earlier? Every time we just start to get interested in something—a character, a situation, some new odd and wonderful place—we're already moving on to the next. And often, that's the only time we see them.

Busy, busy, busy.

As I reread what I've written above, I can see that this is a confusing review. Did I, or did I not, like the book? A little of both is the only answer I can give you, and as annoyed as I was for much of the book, I still find myself wanting to recommend it to you.

I think the real problem with Un Lun Dun can be found in the interview that was in the back of the galley I read. When asked by the interviewer if this is a YA book, Miéville says, "Absolutely," then goes on to add, "There's a certain kind of fairy-tale logic you can use in a YA book that you can't in an adult book, or at least not without tipping into a kind of mannered fabulism that, in adult fiction, I don't love. I couldn't use a character with a bottle of ink for a head in an adult book."

I couldn't disagree more. YA books aren't a place where anything can happen. A belief such as that just shows a disrespect to your audience. Teen readers are as smart and savvy as adult readers—some of them more so. And adult novels can have all sorts of whimsical and dark oddities in them.

They aren't "mannered fabu–lism" in the right hands. Readers will accept many things when they start a book, but no matter how outlandish the things we meet in its pages might be, the good author roots it all in believable characters. Characters that live and breathe and grow as the story unfolds.

And that's where Un Lun Dun fails. Miéville's characters are differentiated only by their physical attributes. They act a certain way, because they look a certain way. I think he was trying for an Alice in Wonderland quirkiness, and that might have worked in a smaller book, or perhaps one with longer scenes. Even Carroll spent more time in his scenes than Miéville does, and while Alice is an innocent to whom things happen, Miéville's Deeba isn't. She's a doer, but we're always told what she feels and why she does the things she does; we don't actually get to know her.

It's too bad. If Miéville had just taken a bit more care with his characters, and reined in the barrage of images and events a little, he might very well have had one of those classic children's books he mentions admiring so much in his interview.

As it is, enjoy Un Lun Dun for the wonderful images it can conjure. Just don't expect to be with any one for very long, or to ever really get to know the characters.

The final book will have fifty illustrations by the author which weren't included in the galley I read, but you can see a few at: www.unlundun.com. They're wonderfully odd and charming, proving that Miéville appears to be as talented an artist as he usually is an author.

*     *     *

Underland, by Mary Patterson Thornburg,
AuthorHouse, 2005, $9.90.

Mary Patterson Thornburg understands the need for strong characterization. Her Underland might be a self-published novel, but from page one, she knows that if she wants readers to stay with her, she has to give us someone we can care about. And so we get Alyssha Dodson living in the small Midwestern city of Granville, and we do care about her.

Alyssha lives with her dad and cat Hoppy. Four years previously, her brother mysteriously disappeared, and they've been looking for him ever since. Except as the book opens, a pair of nasty men comes looking for them, or for something they have, and familial love isn't part of the equation.

When Alyssha and her father make their separate escapes, Alyssha's takes her all the way into an otherworld, and soon we begin to see connections between the two worlds, Alyssha's missing brother, and just what those men were looking for.

I liked this book right from the start, and though the protagonist is young, the story feels more like an all-ages fantasy than a strictly YA book.

In sharp contrast to Miéville's newest novel, Underland moves at a more leisurely pace—perhaps too leisurely for the MTV generation, but I don't see that as a flaw. The world she depicts, and the people inhabiting it, are such that I'm interested in spending time with them and learning more about their history and relationships. It's all wonderfully realized.

I find it interesting to contrast these two books—one from a big publishing house, the other self-published—mostly because, without all the big name and hoopla behind it, Underland still proved to be the much more satisfying read. Yes, it could probably have used a light editing hand here and there—but only a light one was needed. Mostly, the book stands admirably as it is and should delight fantasy readers of all ages.

*     *     *

Conan: The Ultimate Guide to the World's Most Savage Barbarian, by Roy Thomas,
DK Publishing, 2006, $24.99.

The book in hand is only the latest volume celebrating the centennial of Robert E. Howard. I know; the title's a bit over the top, and the full-color artwork that leaps out at you from every oversized page appears to be mostly culled from various comic book interpretations of Howard's famous character, but it should still delight all but the most scholarly of Conan readers.

The text—penned by Roy Thomas, who with his comic book scripts probably wrote more words about Howard's characters than did Howard himself—is basically a heavily illustrated biography of the world's most famous barbarian. It sets the stage of the Hyborian Age with a background of the landscape, gods, and history, then starts with Conan's humble beginnings on a battlefield and takes us all the way through to his rule as King of Aquilonia.

As such, it serves as an enthusiastic introduction to the character, and readers unfamiliar with the canon can easily cross-reference the events Thomas describes with the original stories to get the full impact of Howard's storytelling skills. A comprehensive index will take them back to the entries in The Ultimate Guide where connections not so readily apparent in the stories themselves are clearly described.

I'm not sure it's a "must have" for longtime readers of the prose books, but it will certainly appeal to anyone who followed the monthly comics from Marvel, and provides a fascinating look into the history of Conan to readers who only know the character from the comic book series currently being published by Dark Horse, as well as readers of Dynamite Entertainment's Red Sonja series. (Although the "she-devil with a sword" doesn't actually get any face time in this book; probably because she was created by Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith, rather than Howard, and so isn't a part of the official canon.)

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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