China Mieville’s Kraken is a rollicking head-spinning comic novel set in an alternate London where gods and cults and magic are so interwoven into the daily fabric that there is an entire squad in the London police to deal with those elements, and it is that squad which is called in to investigate when the eponymous Kraken is stolen from the Natural History Museum.
They’re not alone in their desire to find out what happened to the giant squid, however, which also happens to be considered a god by many. Its disappearance has its most direct impact on the employee who preserved it — Billy Harrow — who finds himself thrown into the London underworld and caught in a crossfire of warring goals, including those of the Kraken cult, the aforementioned special police squad, an underworld boss known as The Tattoo, and an ancient Egyptian spirit and labor leader in the midst of organizing a strike by the city’s familiars, who feel they’ve been abused by the local magic users. Throw in sundry other cults beyond the Krakenists, a pair of broadly horrific villains for hire, a host of oddball minor characters such as the one who practices “extreme origami” and a group of picketing pigeons, and not one but two scheduled apocalypses, and you’ve got yourself a wildly exuberant ride.
Perhaps a bit too much so. Kraken reminded me of an adult Un Lun Dun, Mieville’s YA novel, in that there were so many great concepts and ideas flying off the page that I wished he were a bit more selective and we could slow down and visit with a few of them a bit longer. I found that (more so than with his other books) I needed to let the many, many strange words wash over me and just act as unfocused filler that created a sense of a London submerged in magic and religion (lots of cults, lots of gangs, lots of acronyms and names of magical acts). If you stopped to ask yourself just what he was talking about at any given point, you’d just give up the way you would listening to a conversation between two quantum physicists discussing math issues.
While the jargon can at times make for a bumpy ride, and while I’d say the book comes in a bit too long, say 75 pages or so too long, the sheer inventiveness and boisterous wittiness of it sweeps you along through most of what is basically a big book-long chase scene, filled with gleeful stopovers to poke fun at various genre elements (Star Trek gets a few choice cameos on the comic stage). This is Mieville, though, so while you get great bursts of broad humor and quieter moments of chortling wit, you also get some serious sublayers — the most obvious of course being the labor issues, but the role of religion underlies quite a bit of the plot as well.
Characters probably take a back role to setting and plot here; I can’t say there’s much of an emotional attachment. Billy and his partner, a renegade Krakenist, carry just about all of the plot but mostly serve as vehicles for it. It’s really not until the girlfriend of Billy’s best friend becomes involved that I think we really get a character to care much about. When characters do stick in the mind, it’s more for their weirdness and originality than a sense of connection to them: his two villains Goss and Subby are utterly compelling (they’ve terrorized the city for centuries) when on stage and Wati grows on you by the end. I don’t, however, think that the lack of attachment to the characters detracts from the book; it just isn’t that kind of book.
Kraken isn’t an easy read thanks to the sheer flood of strangeness, but if you just ride the wave and let it carry you forward, it’s an exhilarating trip. Recommended.
There are two adjectives for China Miéville’s Kraken: “fun” and “exhilarating.”
Miéville’s longer works have always seemed serious to me. Intricately imagined, believably peopled with intriguing characters, and told with elaborate arabesques and flourishes of language, they were still serious, even grave. Kraken is not. Maybe Miéville just needed to burn off some energy after coming off his stylistically restrained The City and the City, but Kraken is not a serious book, even though serious things happen. Good people die, others suffer great loss, the End of Days is upon us, and it still reads like a world-class thrill ride.
Billy Harrow is a curator at a natural history museum in London. The museum boasts a specimen of architeuthis, a giant squid, that Billy actually helped preserve. Billy’s carefree existence of work, listening to music, reading books and sipping a pint with his old college friend Leon ends abruptly when the squid and its glass tank disappear from the display room, something that should be impossible. In short order, Billy is interrogated by some very unusual cops from the Cult Squad, abducted by a man and a boy who unfold, origami-like, from a package, threatened by a sentient tattoo, and introduced to the Church of the Kraken, a group that worships the missing squid as God.
Billy quickly learns that in addition to quotidian London there is a layer he never saw before, Magical London, and all of Magical London wants the squid. The Church of the Kraken wants it because it is sacred. The Londonmancers want it to keep it safe. The followers of a dead criminal/magician/cultist want it. The Tattoo wants it because other people want it. Most of them think Billy has it, and those who don’t think he can find it. He is forced to put his trust in Kraken true-believer Dane in order to survive this strange new world.
Miéville is a highly-educated, well-read, powerful writer who thinks about economics, politics, faith and science. He also frolics in the pop-culture environment like a dolphin in tropical surf. Kraken is filled with pop-culture references, many of them science-fictional and fantastical, some I didn’t even get. Whether it’s Harry Potter, Men in Black, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Blake’s Seven or any generation of Star Trek, it gets a nod, as do more esoteric offerings like Farscape and Lexx. Star Trek, represented by a functioning phaser and a James T. Kirk figurine, plays prominently in the plot.
In Looking for Jake, Miéville has a story called “’Tis the Season.” It is a funny story. Kraken has the same sensibility. One of Billy’s otherworldly allies is a paranormal union organizer, trying to maintain a strike by magical familiars against their magician bosses. The Chaos Nazis are genuine bad-guys who believe in pain, death, anti-Semitism, and looking fabulous, in a velvet-coat-and-lace-cuffs kind of way.
All of Miéville’s trademark weirdness is spread out like a sidewalk market. Humans are metamorphosed into cell phones and radios; tattoos can think, talk and plan revenge; and the ocean has an embassy in London. Marge, Leon’s valiant and devoted girl-friend, enters Magical London with a protective spirit housed in her iPod, and Billy attracts a guardian angel made of bones and bottles.
My complaint? Billy adjusts to the reality of Magical London very easily, as does Marge — although Marge has time to peruse the internet first, and may be slightly better prepared, at least intellectually. We still never see, in either of these characters, a real struggle with disbelief, and the integration of acceptance, or knowledge. I found Billy’s education confusing, too. Early in the book we are told that Billy pursued or attained a higher level degree in theology and then switched to science. Since we have Dane, a true believer, I kept expecting Billy’s education to matter, but the second shoe never dropped. Billy may represent a microcosm of the world in the book. If so, that layer of symbolism wasn’t needed. The dance of religion/science, faith/knowledge, fear/spirituality plays out just fine, and Billy’s possible divinity degree is a distraction.
The City and the City, at heart an origin story, had a gray tone with flashes of color in the cross-hatched areas where the cities bled together. It was almost a police procedural. In contrast, Kraken is an all-access pass to the raucous, smoky, candle-and-neon-lit, swirling, deadly, music-throbbing, beer-guzzling, drug-gulping, ethereal, incense-scented, protean, ink-stained, kaleidoscopic, smile-as-we-cut-your-throat-dangerous, surreal, unreal, godly, squidly, twenty four/seven street carnival of Magical London. It is suspenseful. It is scary. And it’s fun.