An ancient blood feud, youth reclaimed and a topsy-turvy London.

By Reviewed by Michael Sims
Sunday, May 20, 2007

UN LUN DUNBy China Miéville Ballantine/Del Rey. 432 pp. $17.95

For style and inventiveness, turn to Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville, who throws off more imaginative sparks per chapter than most authors can manufacture in a whole book. Miéville is acclaimed for adult novels such as King Rat. In his first book for a younger audience, he provides verbal paradoxes worthy of Norton Juster's Phantom Tollbooth and humor reminiscent of, if not quite equal to, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. Miéville's heroine, young Deeba, proves a courageous and resourceful companion -- exactly what we need in a tale of nonstop adventure.

Un-London is a bizarro-world version of the real city. Here red double-decker buses can fly. The houses in Puzzleborough move during the night. And the killer fog that London banished in the 1960s has reappeared as the evil Smog, which lives on smoke and inhales souls. At one point, new words take the form of animals: a six-legged diss, a silver-furred bling. This world has other such cities that we hear about: Parisn't, No York, Lost Angeles, Sans Francisco.

Although Miéville's imagination never rests, busy action scenes are not his forte, and some escapades are both blurrier and longer than necessary. But at its best, Un Lun Dun is a lively adventure replete with memorable set pieces. In Wraithtown, for example, everything is a ghost, not just the people. Paper writhes with its former incarnations, while the words on it vie with their erased ancestors for legibility. In vignettes of inspired imagery such as this, Miéville sits at the table with Lewis Carroll, and Deeba cavorts with another young explorer of topsy-turvy worlds.

YSABELBy Guy Gavriel Kay Roc. 421 pp. $24.95

"The past is close to the surface here," says a character in Ysabel. In fact, the past and the present are intertwined in this stylish novel. Best known for acclaimed historical fantasies, Guy Gavriel Kay has chosen this time to ground his imagination in the everyday world of the early 21st century. The convincing hero, Ned Marriner, is 15 and preoccupied with chat rooms, schoolmates and girls.

Ned's father, a world-famous photographer, is shooting a book on Provence, and Ned is tagging along on his summer vacation. In the first chapter, Ned meets an eerie figure from the past and a teenage girl, Kate Wenger, a likable geek who supplies the less bookish Ned with the historical backstory for what turns out to be an ancient romance and blood feud.

Clearly, the book was written on location; the details of Provence plant the story in place and time(s). Characters are equally vivid. The excellent dialogue brings to life the evolving relationships among Ned, his father, his father's assistants and other members of Ned's family who show up as the story develops. Ned wears his iPod in a cathedral and turns to Google for specifics of Celts and reincarnation, as he reluctantly discovers that he has a central role to play in a supernatural rivalry that takes new form in every generation -- and his is next. Perhaps no story is older than the self-conscious adolescent evolving into a hero, but it survives for a reason, and Kay's take on it is invigorating.

The title character remains more of a cipher than she deserves, and the villains, although believable, prove less than scary. But Kay tells a vivid and satisfying tale, with moments of sublime eeriness when past and present blur.

ROLLBACKBy Robert J. Sawyer Tor. 320 pp. $24.95

Turning to Robert J. Sawyer's Rollback, we move from the sublime to the ridiculous. In 2009, Sarah Halifax deciphers the first message from aliens; in 2048, when she is 87, a second message arrives. Hoping to keep Sarah alive to decipher again, a billionaire sponsors her "rollback," a procedure to restore youth. It works for her narcissistic husband, Don, but not for her. As Sarah continues to age, Don takes his hunky new body on a fling with 25-year-old Lenore Darby, who is about as convincing a scientist as Julie Adams in "Creature from the Black Lagoon."

In Sawyer's vision of the mid- and late-21st century, characters sit around discussing the Atkins Diet and remembering Jerry Seinfeld routines. Lenore, like so many scientists, wears her T-shirt tied to reveal her supermodel abs above her denim shorts. Sawyer's idea of a dizzying feat of speculation is to remark explicitly about future couture, "No one wore ties anymore." Like his protagonists, Sawyer was born in 1960, and he spends the first few chapters pitying his decrepit characters. Sarah deserves our sympathy. Don has been reciting "Lost in Space" trivia for "over seventy years now" and finds an exhausting number of reasons to remember scenes from "Star Trek."

Much of the novel is spent recalling the past -- usually, by a striking coincidence, also the author's past, in Canada between 1960 and 2006. Apparently nothing has happened since. The wildest imaginative leap in this book is the fantasy that Lenore immediately jumps into bed with Don -- who, at 87, still remembers the name of his favorite Playboy Playmate (from 1992). The story ends in 2067, at the Canadian bicentennial exposition, but Sawyer tells us almost nothing about what Canada is like at the time. Instead, Don dreamily remembers the 1967 Expo -- when he's not thinking how sexy Pamela Anderson looks now that a rollback has restored the beauty of her youth. What an embarrassing book.

THE SECRET CITYBy Carol Emshwiller Tachyon. 209 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Carol Emshwiller is more literate and mature than Sawyer, but in The Secret City she offers readers a story almost as bland as Rollback. Her spare and foggy style, which tells without showing, conveys an appealing empathy, but this moodiness isn't enough to sustain a plot as familiar as this one. Her narrator is an alien, one of many wandering Earth. He looks, naturally, just like a human. He is lonely. He is pursued by both his fellows and Earthlings. He flees. He returns to the city of the title.

The author makes little effort to convince us. Homeschooled to avoid Earthlings, her alien casually uses terms such as "osteoporosis" and "marmalade tabby." Emshwiller seems to think that her story has the resonance of fable and can eschew anchoring detail, but she supplies almost nothing but a mood that dissipates as quickly as she creates it.

Michael Sims is the author of "Adam's Navel" and other books, and editor, most recently, of "Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief."

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