by China Mieville
Cover Artist: Photo: Vittorio Bruno / Shutterstock
Review by Benjamin Wald
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345497499
Date: 29 June 2010 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
China Mieville' new novel Kraken has a little bit of everything. Actually, it has great heaping piles of everything. There are Lovecraftian squid-worshiping cults, several different bands of bizarre and immoral (or amoral) mercenaries with such colorful appellations as gunfarmers and chaos Nazis, several competing apocalypses, an angel made of specimen bottles and bones, an ancient Egyptian spirit turned union organizer who inhabits the bodies of statues, and much, much more. This profligacy of ideas is a large part of the charm of this book, but it is also responsible for most of the books flaws. However, despite these flaws the sheer energy and inventiveness of the book makes it a fun and engaging read.
The novel is set in contemporary London, to which Mieville adds a varied and seedy hidden community of magic users, called "knackers", cults, and strange beasts. This follows the conventions of the urban fantasy subgenre, but where most such writers are content to populate their worlds with classic bogeymen like vampires and werewolves, Mieville is more creative, making use of a wide variety of invented and reimagined denizens. The closest literary cousin, in terms of setting, is Neil Gaimen's Neverwhere, but Mieville's hidden London is darker and more chaotic than Gaimen's.
The story begins with a squidnapping; a preserved specimen of architeuthis dux, or giant squid, mysteriously vanishes from the London Natural History Museum. This theft is the catalyst that causes Billy, a curator at the museum who prepared the squid specimen for display, to be introduced to the hidden side of London. His relation to the stolen squid, which turns out to be an item of great power and an object of worship to a Lovecraftian doomsday cult, leads everyone to assume he knows more than he does, and poor Billy becomes the focus of the attention, both beneficent and malevolent, for all sorts of power players in the magical community of London.
The theft seems to have coincided with a growing certainty among the seers and prophets of London that the end of the world is fast approaching, and thus finding the missing squid comes to be the focus of various efforts to save, or hasten the end of, the world.
The plot past this point becomes quickly unsummarizable, with plots, revelations, and reversals aplenty. In the end, there is perhaps a bit too much plot here. Some characters drop in and out of the narrative, seemingly at random, to try to accommodate the sheer number of characters introduced and the whirlwind pace of events that are taking place. At first it looks like Billy will be the main character, and in a way he is, but after a short time Billy is stuck competing for time and attention with a rapidly expanding cast of characters, most of which end up being quite bit more interesting. This doesn't leave the character of Billy much room to breath, and he ends up being a bit of a letdown as protagonist. This is only a minor quibble, though, since the other point of view characters are fascinating and well developed enough to make up for Billy's comparative dullness.
This book is chock full of Mieville's signature brand of weirdness. One of the main antagonists in the novel is a man who has been turned into a tattoo on someone else's back, and who must have underlings drag his wearer around so he can see and direct his criminal empire. His main enforcers are the knuckleheads who, as their name implies, have had their heads replaced by giant hands. These are only two of the myriad examples of the grotesque, weird, and evocative monstrosities that populate the novel. There are so many, in fact, that at times they seem to positively clutter up the narrative, with a new marvel every few pages to the extant that the awe of the strange is eroded by the banality of familiarity. However, this over-exposure was, for me at least, temporary, and Mieville consistently returned to his power to amaze with the fertility of his imagination and the power of his imagery.
I can't help but feel that if the book had been willing to take its time a bit more, explore more fully some of the concepts thrown around every few pages, it would have been stronger for it. Alternatively, if the book were shorter than the 500 pages that Kraken clocks in at, it might have been able to better sustain the breakneck narrative pace.
At the end of the day, the book is a bit of a mess. But it is an ingenious, overflowing, erudite mess, full of wit and charm. While this is not Mieville's strongest work, and doesn't measure up to The City & The City or Iron Council, it is still undeniably head and shoulders above most fantasy literature out there, and well worth a read.