In The Kraken Sea, E. Catherine Tobler tells the story of Jackson, an orphan with no last name, who has finally found a home with one of San Francisco’s elite — Cressida, also known as The Widow, who has an unnamed purpose for her new ward. Jackson has a secret of his own, though; when he becomes angry or uncontrolled, he breaks out in scales and tentacles, exhibiting enormous strength. The only person who knows his secret is his confidant and protector at the orphanage: Sister Jerome Grace, an enigmatic nun with her own hidden abilities. But shortly after his adoption by Cressida, Jackson is asked to take sides against Sister Jerome and Mae Bell, an alluring young woman from one of San Francisco’s rival families. The Bell family runs a circus on the north side of town and, despite Cressida’s warnings, Jackson finds himself drawn to their nightly spectacle.
Every detail of Tobler’s world, San Francisco in the late 1800’s, works to create both Jackson’s perspective and the uncanny atmosphere that permeates this novella. The first sentence — “It began with a dragon in the pouring rain, the beast barely held at bay, balanced upon two thin steel rails” — is actually describing the train Jackson takes West, but it simultaneously puts us in the mind of an imaginative child for whom a train can become a dragon, for whom anything can happen. And, like a dragon, that “anything” is likely to be dangerous. This is Jackson’s worldview. He’s an orphan with few clues to his past and little control over his future. Even in the orphanage, he’s been an outcast; his odd abilities have marked him as strange, so none of the other orphans want anything to do with him.
Those abilities are never given a name in The Kraken Sea. We only see them described: his wrists and hands turning iridescent, scaly, his feet and limbs erupting into crushing coils. But we learn early on that Jackson has some ties to Greek mythology. Before he leaves to live with Cressida, Sister Jerome reveals that she is one of the three Fates … the one who spins the thread of all existence. At this revelation, Jackson both dreads and anticipates meeting her two sisters: the one who decides how long the thread should be, and the one who cuts.
Tobler’s prose is gorgeous. Every detail is precise, from Cressida’s honey-colored beehive of hair, to the “violet look” that the fox-face on her stole gives Jackson. At the same time, she leaves much to the imagination, including Jackson’s aforementioned transformations. One of my favorite recurring pieces of lush prose combined with ambiguity were all the description’s of Jackson’s sensations around Mae. Mae might be dangerous to Jackson, but she is also entrancing. His attraction to her is clear. But each time they touch, Tobler’s language slips into the gaps between literal description and dense metaphor. For these scenes (which pretty much stay PG, or PG-13 at most), I liked this effect a lot. It was as if the sensuousness of the language was overwhelming me, the reader, just as the sensuousness of the experience overwhelmed Jackson, a 15-year-old boy who hasn’t had many experiences with girls.
However, I thought the ambiguity in the language sometimes carried over into the plot. I was left with a lot of unanswered questions. What was Jackson? What was his place in the mythology that undergirds this story? And why did Cressida want him in particular? One episode in particular stands out. At the beginning of The Kraken Sea, Jackson meets Mae at a sideshow in Chicago — a plot device that functions more as a kinda-gory meet-cute than it does to flesh out anything about the characters. We never learn what was going on at the sideshow or why Mae was there to begin with. That scene felt like it was setting something up, but (unless I missed something) it was quickly dropped.
I also didn’t really relate to Jackson’s central struggle: whether to side with Cressida or the Bells. Not only were the stakes of this conflict not clearly laid out until the end, but I never found Cressida all that compelling as a protector or adopted mother-figure. While both she and Mae had their moments of creepiness from the beginning, I understood Jackson’s attraction to Mae. I never understood his feelings of loyalty to Cressida, as she had always seemed pretty shady and not particularly warm, and in addition, had only been his guardian for a short time. So when the final showdown occurred and Jackson was forced to pick sides, I was unprepared and felt blasé about it.
However, there was enough in The Kraken Sea — a likeable main character, prose that was a pleasure to read, and mysteries rooted in myth and legend — to draw me in and to set up for (what I hope will be) a sequel or two. I’d love to get to the bottom of the mysteries the book gestures at, lurking behind the fabric of Tobler’s world.
[Addendum: I was not aware that this took place in a previously established universe of Tobler’s, called JACKSON’S UNREAL CIRCUS. She has a dozen or so stories in this series, and The Kraken Sea is meant to be the backstory of the founder of the circus. So the sequel I wanted already exists; hooray! Links to many of these stories can be found on Tobler’s website: http://ecatherine.com/the-unreal-circus/.]