Un Lun Dun by China Mieville (Shane's book 23, 2008)

I've wanted to read something by China Mieville for a while and not just because, like me, he's from Norwich. I bought this on the spur of the moment and only when I got it home did I notice the words "Un Lun Dun is his first novel for younger readers". I was unsure what to make of it for a while but Mieville gradually won me over, particularly when he confirmed what I've always thought about cats:

"There are no cats in UnLondon, for example, because they're not magic and mysterious at all, they're idiots."

Exactly what I've long suspected.

Anyway, Un Lun Dun is the story of Zanna and her friend Deeba, a pair of 12-year-old girls living in London. Through a series of bizarre events they find themselves in a parallel London, called UnLondon, which is populated by a series of strange people, animals and living milk cartons. Here buses walk on lizard legs, giraffes are bloodthirsty predators and the elite Propheseers are guarded by martial arts-practising dustbins, the binja.

At first glance it's fairly typical: a young child discovers she's the chosen one who can save a previously unknown world that exists parallel to our own. However Mieville gleefully subverts the usual cliches. For example, Zanna, the chosen one, is sidelined about a quarter of the way through the book and never returns. The real heroine is Deeba, the 'sidekick'. This is a blow to the book of prophesy, a talking book which had predicted great things for Zanna and spends the rest of the novel profoundly depressed when its contents turn out to be mistaken.

Mieville's story is closer to the Philip Pullman end of the kids' book scale than the JK Rowling end. It's well-written, packed with humour and imagination and doesn't talk down to its readers.