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It was a little square of card, some strange design, a beautiful, intricate thing of multicoloured swirling lines. It was, Deeba had realized, some mad version of a London travelcard. It said it was good for zones one to six, buses and trains, all across the city.

On the dotted line across its centre was carefully printed: ZANNA MOON SHWAZZY.

I have a weird love/hate relationship with the writing of China Miéville. The first time I read Perdido Street Station I was enjoying a fruitful encounter with the work of M. John Harrison (check out his blog here). Miéville was a poor imitation of the latter to my mind and suffered by the comparison.

Skip forward another five years and I finally re-read Perdido Street Station. And I loved it. The more I learn about Miéville the more I like him. Here was a fantasy/sf writer (he tends to be lumped in among the ‘new weird‘) who liked to explore socialist themes in a fictional setting. Also the bloke is astonishingly charismatic in person.

So I have been converted to the cause.

Un Lun Dun begins in a seemingly conventional manner. Two friends Zanna and Deeba begin to notice various strange phenomenon, seemingly targeted at the former teenage girl. Animals pause and bow to her, strangers approach them in café and address Zanna as ‘the Shwazzy‘, and finally a noxious black smog seems to be stalking her.

When the two girls accidentally cross over to an alternate London – UnLondon – they find a weird world similar to their own and yet filled with unusual creatures such as ‘unbrellas’, wraiths, stink-junkies, bookaneers, flying buses and binjas. The rejected flotsam and jetsam of London find a new home here and often come alive.

The people of UnLondon worship Zanna as a prophesied saviour who will rescue them from the malevolent entity known as the Smog. When the city is attacked by the creature’s minions, Zanna is knocked unconscious and Deeba is sent back with her to ‘their world’. The prophesies have been proven false, the Shwazzy has failed and while the UnLondoners assure Deeba that they have a back-up plan in the event of prophecy not going to plan, she cannot help but feel there is something wrong.

When she returns home she discovers no one has even missed her. Zanna has no memory of their journey and Deeba’s talk of evil smog and talking books of prophecy sound like the babblings of a crazy person. So after going to all that effort to escape back home, Deeba decides to return to UnLondon. She may not have been chosen by fate, but she knows what to do. It is time to clean up UnLondon.

This is a fantastic, delirious, dark-edge transplantation of Oz to the landscape of the Thames.  Miéville conjures up amazing creatures that fit neatly into this incredible world of his invention – including carnivorous giraffes, roaming ‘unbrellas’, and ‘smombies’. An added treat is Miéville’s own illustrations, including ghostly afterimages of street-lamps from earlier eras, the aforementioned giraffes and of course, my personal favourites, the binja:

I love those guys.

This is a great book for children, with quite possibly the most kick-ass ending I have ever read. Fast-paced, funny and very imaginative, it is an adorable book. I really wish I had not read it in a single day. I want to spend a week reading it. In fact, I’ll say it here, any parent who reads this to their child is possibly the coolest mum or dad ever.

Great fun.

I can feel the panic welling up inside me once more, a swelling wave of hysteria and dark despair. If there was only one person I could turn to, one person to confirm that I haven’t gone crazy, that world has…But there’s not. I have nothing, no one to hold on to, not one anchor to reality except for what lies inside my head.

What lies inside my head. All these memories. So many of them, with such detail. How can they all be lies?

About ten years ago I began rabbiting on to whomever would listen about something I called ‘modern fantasy’. In a nutshell, I was on the look-out for stories set in the present day that belonged to the fantasy genre, but featured neither magical swords, or elves. A modern update of the type of fiction Hope Mirlees and Lord Dunsany wrote before the Tolkien cottage-industry swept across the genre.

Jonathan Carroll is one such writer, as is John Crowley, who’s Little, Big to my mind ranks up there with classics such as Lud-in-the-Mist. The next name I mention when discussing this topic is Charles de Lint. Nowadays I imagine his work would be pitched to take advantage of the current ‘urban fantasy/dark romance’, sub-genres. Yet his writing manages to be both highly metaphorical, while also rooted in character building. His novels tend to feature large casts of twenty-somethings faced with dreamlike realities that they have to muddle their way through, in between paying rent and dealing with lousy relationships.

Trader seems at first to be have an atypically narrow cast of characters, as it begins with two men, Max Trader and Johnny Devlin, switching bodies. Max is a luthier, a craftsman who finds it easier to judge the quality of a piece of wood than the people he meets outside his workshop. Johnny is a user, who accepts no responsibility for his life and takes a selfish pleasure in manipulating people, such as his ex Tanya, into doing favours he has no interest in returning. Only now Johnny finds himself in Max’s body and it seems all his financial woes are over. He owns an apartment, a successful business and people even stop him in the street having read an interview with ‘Max’, in specialist magazines. His body’s original owner is having a much harder time of it. Max wakes to the sound of two women screaming at him to repay money he has stolen. That same day, still confused at being trapped in this new body, he is evicted and with no money is force to live rough on the streets.

Then he meets the man wearing his body, who casually dismisses him with the threat of calling the cops. After all who would believe this story?

Young Nia does. She lives in Max’s building and befriended him before the body swap happened. She can see that this new Max speaks, moves and acts completely differently. It almost seems as if someone else is inside Max, controlling him and then she begins to suspect that he is not the only one to have been changed.

The stage is set for a conflict between the two men that will cross from this world into another dimension, where their very souls are threatened by spirits and old gods.

As I said initially this seems to be a simple story a good man and a bad man trapped in each other’s lives. A magic realist The Prince and the Pauper perhaps. But de Lint brings a lot more to the table. When Max becomes homeless it is easy for people to assume when he talks about his life being stolen from him, he simply means the livelihood he squandered that led to his living rough in city parks. He meet a fortune teller names Bones, who off-handedly reveals he has invented his whole precognition gig – but that doesn’t mean it is not true. When he talks to Max about living in a second skin, he assumes the Indian means being down and out, having to reinvent yourself. Once again though, why can it not be both.

An assortment of bohemian artists and performers are introduced, the ideal people to give any credence to body swapping and ream worlds malarkey. Sometimes their interludes feel distracting though. I felt we never learned enough about Devlin, although he’s a louse seems to sum it up.

An entertaining fable, with sense of whimsy.

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