Kraken by China Miéville
Ah, China Miéville, never change. Who’d have thought that things could have gotten weirder from Embassytown and the Bas-Lag trilogy? This time Miéville doesn’t even need to construct a new setting, such as New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station or the eponymous Embassytown, instead setting this bizarre and fantastic tale inside of London. I first gained an inkling of Miéville’s fascination for his home city in the excellent short story collection Looking for Jake, with most of the stories taking place in London. In fact, the seeds for Kraken can first be seen being planted in that collection. This novel draws immediate comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but never feels derivative, offering a vision of a fantastical London which feels suitably different from that shown in Neverwhere.
Kraken is, like Neverwhere, set in a London which contains a fully fleshed out, vibrant world alongside the mundane one of our reality, hidden from the general public. Where Neverwhere had a much clearer division between the London of reality and the mystical underground alongside it all, in Kraken this bizarre London bubbles much closer to the surface, to the point that it can rather strain belief that everyday residents haven’t noticed anything. I think this may have been intentional; Miéville is possibly commenting on the way that people will blindly ignore what is right in front of them if it doesn’t conform to their pr-existing beliefs or thought structures. Regardless, this is a London filled with bizarre warring factions, some religious cults and some supernatural criminal gangs. Along the way we encounter the ‘Chaos Nazis’, the ‘Gunfarmers’, the ‘Londonmancers’ and plenty more. I won’t say much about the strange and fantastic things the reader encounters here, as discovering yet another layer to this strange world is probably the chief pleasure of this novel.
Kraken follows a few characters, but at its core is the curator Billy Harrow, a ‘normal’ drawn into the bizarre parallel London, a la Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere. Billy is giving a tour of the Natural History Museum, and he is about to bring his group to the star attraction; a fully intact, preserved giant squid. However, things don’t quite go to plan. Somehow, impossibly, the giant squid has been stolen from under the nose of the museum staff, and has been whisked away. The giant squid, or ‘Kraken’, is the God of a cult, and a being of immense power. This power of the squid is being harnessed by a mysterious figure to bring about a fiery apocalypse. Billy, as the curator who embalmed the squid, is hailed as a prophet by the cult and is drawn into Mieville’s wonderful and strange London to hunt down the squid and attempt to avert the oncoming apocalypse.
Kraken is probably Mieville’s most uneven novel I’ve yet read. The plot of Kraken doesn’t quite hold together throughout the novel, often feeling more like a series of amusing and interesting vignettes rather than a coherent whole. The central mystery of exactly what’s going on with the giant squid never feels quite as prominent as it should, and Mieville is perhaps a little too eager to foist another strange bunch of factions upon us rather than sticking to the central premise. Mieville used this fractured style to great effect in Perdido Street Station and The Scar, but it doesn’t quite work as well here. That said, this is simply one of the most fun novels I’ve ever read. If taken as what it is, rather than what we may want it to be, Kraken is one of the most entertaining novels that you’re likely to read, a great example of the wonderful merging of social-political commentary, edifying intellectualism and glorious silliness which makes up Mieville’s unique style. Mieville’s penchant for Marxist themes in his writing are on clear display here, but never overwhelms the entire novel as it did in the somewhat disappointing Iron Council. To clarify, I’m not opposed to fantasy taking a political stance, but I don’t believe that it should ever get in the way of a good story, and if used subtly can significantly enhance it, as it does in Kraken.
Mieville is a writer not content to stick with the relatively plain style generally favoured by writers in the genre, and his ebullient prose is always a lot of fun to read. Kraken takes a while to find it’s tone, but when it does it settles into it nicely. There’s a lot of authorial interjection in this novel, an almost conversational or chatty tone to the narration which reminded me of Stephen King’s folksy style. This is not a novel written with an impassive aloofness, a method which is generally the safest bet as too much of an authorial presence can be rather wearying. Mieville pulls it off nicely though, with the authorial voice often delivering some of the funniest lines in the novel. Oh, and wow is this a funny novel. Mieville’s other works which I have read weren’t exactly laugh riots, some of the stories from Looking for Jake excepted, but Kraken shows that Mieville has some solid comedy chops as well.
Whilst Billy’s development from mild mannered, geeky museum curator to savvy, supernatural badass isn’t particularly convincing, the supporting cast entirely makes up for it. Particular highlights included Wati, an incorporeal entity who heads a union for familiars, a figure whose back story is one of the most fascinating and moving I’ve ever encountered. A great comic highlight was Collingswood, a foul mouthed young witch who works for a branch of the police specialising in the supernatural. The characterisation here is probably the best I’ve read since The Scar; like with Steven Erikson, in Mieville’s novels, the world itself is often the star, with the actual characters somewhat paling next to the vivid and fascinating settings Mieville has conjured. Happily, in Kraken this isn’t the case.
Things aren’t all rosy however; the awfully sinister and insidious villains Goss and Subby are suitably loathsome and horrible, but are somewhat diminished by their startling similarity to Croup and Vandemar of Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not simply rip-offs, and are interesting figures in their own right, but anyone who has read Neverwhere will be extremely distracted by the similarity, and they never quite manage to match the wonderful creepiness that Gaiman’s creations exhibited. I suspect that Goss and Subby were intended as an homage to Croup and Vandemar, but it’s an homage which is just too close to what it pays tribute to.
Kraken is, whilst not quite living up to Perdido Street Station and The Scar, a really fun book which never stops revealing hidden depths until it ends. It’s a sprawling, uneven, and oddly undisciplined novel, but it’s strengths comfortably shine through these issues and leaves Kraken a thoroughly enjoyable read. If you’re a fan of Mieville’s other work, or even the works of writers such as Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, you should find a lot to love about Kraken.