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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.

Midnight Kiss is a densely plotted, cleverly written and beautifully drawn tale of mayhem and mystery in fairyland. These fairies, however, use some pretty heavy artillery and most of them make the Hitler gang look like a teddy bear’s picnic. Add fabulous references to a Land of Oz fighting a vicious civil war, a bunch of fabulous creatures being hunted for their hearts and minds (literally) and you have one of the richest, most original, engaging and fast-moving graphic stories of the new century.

The above quote is taken from Michael Moorcock’s introduction to this comic book collection. I chose it as this fulsome praise convinced me to buy the book. Moorcock was approached by Lee for permission to use his dimension-hopping anti-hero Jerry Cornelius for this book. One of the most popular of Moorcock’s creations, one that he has in the past allowed other New Worlds authors such as M. John Harrison to use, Cornelius is a devious, dimension-hopping anarchist, perfectly suited for Lee’s story of a multiverse of fantasy realms. Given that this book had Moorcock’s stamp of approval, I bought it without hesitation.

The story begins with a boy named William being confronted by a gang of gun-toting Unseelie Fae, mistaken by him for vampires. Moments before he is captured, Matthew Sable and Nightmare De’Lacey arrive and decimate the heavily armed fairies. The mystically empowered duo explain to William that he is what they call a ‘rational’, someone who believes that one world and reality exist. Sable explains that millennia ago an event called the shattering occurred, with each realm of faerie separated into different dimensions. What normal humans, rationals, assume are fictional worlds or fantasies are actually each unique threads within the multiverse.

William has become the target of a conspiracy to create a demonic demiurge due to his own mysterious parentage. A series of assassinations are being carried out against different creatures of fantasy across a number of worlds. Now that William is under the protection of Sable, two murderers for hire called Jonny Cool and The Flickman, are contracted to recover him. They slaughter their way through several dimensions in pursuit of their quary. A third story thread concerns a police investigator known as Einhorn trying to discover what is behind the series of murders relating to the conspiracy. Each of the protagonists are drawn to the Land of Oz, torn apart by a civil war between the forces of the evil Scarecrow and President Dorothy Gale.

I am sorry to report that I found this to be a bleak and dispiriting story. Despite the warm introduction from Moorcock, Midnight Kiss resembles a derivative, grim ‘n’ gritty take on Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. The excellent blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics recently proposed a dark take on Robin Hood for satirical purposes. Wouldn’t you know it, the Sherwood Forest archer appears here, consumed with feelings of revenge towards Matthew Sable (for reasons too silly to go into). Our heroes use their magical abilities to sprout dayglo guns and swords from their arms, slaughtering their opponents with impunity. At times I was confused as to what distinguished them from blood-thirsty antagonists Jonny Cool and The Flickman. Of course the break-neck twist in the final issue addresses just that ambiguity with groan-worthy results. Poor William is also just another derivative messiah-child, being dragged along in a state of constant confusion until the plot demands that he suddenly assert himself.

As to Jerry Cornelius’ role in the proceedings, well he’s basically a bag-man. His ability to cross dimensions is here employed to run errands on Sable’s behalf. I found this especially amusing as Moorcock cites Lee as having ‘got’, Cornelius’ function as a character. Tony Lee’s afterword mentions that other writers had misused the character in the past, without consulting his creator. I assume this is a reference to Grant Morrison’s attempt in his seminal book The Invisibles, there named Gideon Stargrove. Ironically I thought the unauthorised use of the Cornelius concept was far more successful than the fully approved one in Midnight Kiss.

Ryan Stegman’s art may suit the material, blood clotting on the panels and breasts thrusting outwards, but once again it reminded me of the bad old days. If you look at the cover image below you will notice a huge robot. Yes, that’s The Tin Man.

A huge disappointment.

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