The April F&SF arrived today, which puts me back on track (or at least, it arrived when I expected it to arrive; I’m now not expecting anything until the June issue towards the end of June, having long since given up on ever seeing the January issue). It’s a Gene Wolfe special, which may prompt one of my periodic attempts to get to grips with said writer, but of course what I flipped to first were the reviews. This issue, Charles de Lint reviews China Mieville’s latest. The review is notable for two reasons: one, it’s almost the only negative review I can remember de Lint giving — to be fair, his column is called “books to look for”, not “books to avoid” — and two, it’s almost the only negative view of Un Lun Dun I’ve seen so far. An excerpt:
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.
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 fabulism” 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.
His criticisms of the book may or may not be valid (I haven’t read Un Lun Dun, but I recognise the slog of relentless events from at least the first section of Iron Council), but I’m not sure he’s interpreted Mieville correctly; or at least, I’m not sure “fairy-tale logic” is equivalent to “anything can happen”.