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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.

Freedom! Jane thought. She rocked back on her heels and imagined Stilt flapping off clumsily into a bronze-green autumn sky. Her thoughts soared with him, over the walls and razor-wire and into the air, the factory buildings and marshalling yards dwindling below, as he flew higher than the billowing exhaust from the smokestacks, into the deepening sky, higher than Dame Moon herself. And never, oh never, to return!

I have had the good fortune to experience that age-old cliché of ‘escaping into a good book’. It is a rare occurence, but it does happen. To be completely transported away into a world conjured up by an author’s imagination is a delicate and wondrous thing.

Over the course of this challenge I have experienced this only two or three times. Geoff Ryman provided one such diversion, as did David Mitchell. As I write each entry for this blog, I become more eager to feel the sensation of sinking into another imaginary world once more.

The opening pages of Michael Swanwick‘s novel promised just that. Jane Alderberry has been raised in a factory that supplies the Elven kingdom with dragons. She is human, but just as much a slave as the other workers, elves, shapeshifters and other examples of fey kind, owned and controlled by the factory itself. Jane is persuaded to help the roguish Rooster sabotage the factory in an attempt to murder their overseer the disgusting Blugg. The assassination plot fails and its mastermind loses an eye for his troubles, but Jane returns to her bunk with the means to her own escape. A grimoire detailing the making of dragons.

As her knowledge of the workings of these incredible metal sky-destriers grows, she becomes aware of a voice compelling her to the factory yard. There she meets the dragon No. 7332, who enmeshes her with promises of freedom from the suffering of the factory. However, she soon realizes she has exchanged one master for another and the indiscriminate havoc he wrecks on the factory claims the lives of both her enemies and those few friends she had.

What follows is a broadly Dickensian narrative of Jane’s rise through Elven society, a cruel and callous pagan universe that nonetheless is fuelled by industry. The various races of the ‘fey and the weird‘, share in a society based on domination and exploitation. Jane begins her schooling disguised as an ordinary wood-nymph in order to learn how to repair No. 7332, discovers a love of theft and through her scheming wrangles a scholarship to university studying alchemical sciences. With each elevation through society she finds herself trapped in the same narratives, love triangles and bitter emnities. Faces and names reoccur with such frequency that she comes to doubt the reality of her existence. Beneath it all, she knows the dragon is controlling her, moving her forward in a game of cosmic strategy that she cannot comprehend.

Swanwick serves up a delicious gumbo of fantasy and steampunk tropes that revolves around two poles of cosmic nihilism and alchemical transformation. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a perversely mischievous book, unrestrained in scope and possessing a wicked sense of humour. There are touches of Dickens strewn throughout, including a reference to the breaking of a barrel of wine as a sign of the building foment in Paris during A Tale of Two Cities. The naming conventions also resemble Dickens’ whimsical malapropisms, but Swanwick also includes allusions to Welsh mythology to remind us that this is ostensibly a fantasy novel. The scenes of ritualistic sex magic, the mating habits of gargoyles, elves snorting lines of coke and Jane consulting a witch on methods of birth control do add to the categorical confusion.

For it has to be said this is a profoundly twisted vision of fantasy, a weird psychodrama that far outstrips the likes of China Miéville, cleaving perhaps closer to the likes of Samuel R. Delany and M. John Harrison.

To say more would, I fear, only spoil the experience of reading this book for yourselves. Writing this review has been as much a pleasure for me as reading the book that informs it. A revelation, whimsically profound and delightfully twisted. Another roaring success for Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series.

I did not feel bad about what I had done. The priest had been a man who had probably tortured many people to death in the name of a god whose doctrines were supposed to be of peace and love, and respect for life. I went out onto the rock, picked up his rifle, and turned away. I felt nothing at all.

Neal Asher’s name is one that I have heard before, but I cannot pin down anything specific I may know about him. He is clearly a science fiction writer, one with ambitions that go beyond cyber-fetishism or mediocre aping of the New Weird set such as China Mieville. In fact just today on the train home from Sydney, a fellow was sitting beside me reading another of Asher’s books, Gridlinked. It appears I have been remiss in my sf studies.

In the far future humanity has fled Europe in the wake of new ice age. The arctic shelf drove their migration to the great continent of Africa. Earth itself has been left behind by the human race, having discovered space travel and setting about colonising other worlds. Those roaming the wild landscape of Africa are the unfortunate few abandoned by their fellow man. Worse again, the decision was made to cull the human race, to ensure its population growth would not overwhelm the sole remaining continent fit to support life. Vicious creatures from selected periods in Earth’s history were introduced into the wild. Woolly mammoths roam the prairie and even genetically modified humans have been created, such as the Great African Vampire. The individual responsible for this is a mythical figure, more machine than man known as The Collector.

The Collector wears human flesh, but beneath the surface ‘he’, has only a brain to remind him of what he once was. Over thousands of years old, he has guided and controlled the destiny of the surviving tribes of humans left on Earth, cataloguing the new species of creatures that have evolved thanks to his meddling. He feels little but contempt for humans themselves and only intervenes if the possibility of extinction rears its head. However, despite his self-appointed position as judge and executioner of the human race, there is another like him roaming the wild. A creature referred to only as the Silver One. It has begun hunting mammoth to draw him into a trap that may end his centuries-long existence on this decimated Earth. Despite knowing this, the Collector heads off in pursuit of the Silver One, perhaps even curious at meeting the possibility of his own non-existence.

The chase between the Collector and the Silver One at one point began to tickle a memory at the back of my brain. It took me a few chapters to realize Asher is attempting what appears to be an exploration of Mary Shelley’s themes from Frankenstein. Here we have a man-made machine seeing fit to judge humanity’s right to survive, a being of pure intellect who has escaped the mortal bounds of flesh. There’s some Terminator thrown in there as well for modern sf fans. Asher also includes a degraded version of Christian fundamentalism, the depraved worship of the so-called Drowned God. The Wachowski Brothers wrote a comic some years ago that pitted Frankenstein’s Monster against a similarly tyrannical version of the Church, titled Doc Frankenstein.

So there is some fun to be had here, picking up on references to Shelley’s work, as well as some musing on Asher’s part as to the consequences of interfering with the human genome. However, the themes of religious fundamentalism versus scientific inquiry hit the reader like a sledge-hammer. The ending dissolves in a hi-tech blood bath above the Earth’s surface and the immortality of the Collector himself renders his conflict with the gun-toting fundamentalists somewhat moot. The action also veers wildly across centuries, pushing the narrative further and further into the strange future history of this depraved Earth.

Overall I found this to be an interesting novel, but not a wholly satisfying one.

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