Kraken by China Miéville
Publisher: Pan Books (Macmillan)
Pages: 481 (Paperback)
An Impossible Theft. A Legendary Beast. A Holy War.
Deep in the research wing of the Natural History Museum is a prize specimen, something that comes along much less often than once in a lifetime: a perfect, and perfectly preserved, giant squid. But what does it mean when the creature suddenly and impossibly disappears?
For curator Billy Harrow it’s the start of a headlong pitch into a London of warring cults, surreal magic, apostates and assassins. It might just be that the creature he’s been preserving is more than a biological rarity: there are those who are sure it’s a god.
A god that someone is hoping will end the world.
So that’s the blurb, colour me intrigued. Now I’m not as up on my modern fiction as I would like to be so the first I heard of Miéville – despite him winning multiple fantasy awards – was when someone on the internet got excited that he was going to be writing comics for DC. Now since I can neither afford to nor have any interest in following anything set in the main DC universe I didn’t pay it too much attention until someone got ridiculously butthurt and indignant about the fact that Miéville is a fantasy writer who (shock, horror!) doesn’t like Tolkien and isn’t afraid to say so. Despite loving Lord of the Rings (jury’s still out on The Hobbit) I read the ensuing argument and pretty much thought ‘well that’s criticism I’ve had for years and Tolkien copycats do annoy me with their crappy writing and tired fantasy tropes’. So naturally I decided that I had to read one of his books. I wavered a bit when someone else said that a lot of his writing was ‘weird for the sake of weird and not as clever as he thinks’ but nevertheless I approached the fantasy bookshelf of Waterstone’s anyway, if with a bit of trepidation.
There were a number of his books on the shelf but after reading the blurbs I went with Kraken – mainly because I have a sort bile fascination with squids (they creep me out completely, just the idea can send shivers down my spine if I think too hard about them, but they are incredible life forms and I can easy imagine people worshiping them as gods). Also the museum connection, not only do I love the Natural History Museum with all the untempered passion of a seven year old boy, but I spend a fair bit of time volunteering at another Natural History Museum in Oxford (we have the first ever dinosaur bones, take that London!). It’s not quite what I want to get into as a career (museum education rather than curation) but it’s something I find amazingly interesting – especially all that sciencey-biology stuff that I was never very good at.
So having picked it out for these rather superficial reasons I gave it a read. And I’m really fricking glad I did. With a bit of time and hindsight I might feel I want to downgrade it a little to a 4.5 or so, but right at this moment I’m still in my happy post-book glow so 5 stars it gets. I will admit I was a bit uncertain it was going to get that at certain points though.
The beginning starts well enough – Billy taking a tour group behind the scenes into the research facilities of the Darwin Centre and the sudden discovery that the tour highlight, a pickled giant squid, has disappeared. So far so pretty much what I would expect from the blurb and I got a nice giggle in reading about people’s normal reactions to seeing Charles Darwin’s handwriting on his specimen jars – I’ve been ‘backstage’ with school tourgroups in Oxford (in the room of the famous debate in fact) and the only people who got remotely excited when shown Darwin’s entomology collection with all their handwritten notes were me and the teacher. Maybe I just expect too much from 11 year olds.
Of course the police turn up and, understandably, don’t know what to make of it – there is no possible way the gigantic specimen jar could have been stolen without anyone noticing. Soon enough, after several more odd occurrences, it’s been removed from the hands of normal policemen and given to the FSRC (Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit), who believe that the squid has been taken by squid-worshiping cultists. For a while here it looks like Kraken may be going in a similar direction to the very enjoyable Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch – an ordinary guy with hinted magical potential suddenly discovering the magical world and joining a super-secret magical branch of the police force to help solve the crime. So when at the end of Part One things take a sudden turn for the unexpected I wasn’t quite prepared enough for it.
After the rather standard beginning it took me a bit of time to get my head round the very sudden plunge into magical London. It’s my own fault for slipping into preconceived notions, I know, but it took me a couple of chapters to work out what exactly was going on; so much information and weird visual imagery was being thrown at me that I couldn’t tell what was important and what was background detail. It was at this point I thought ‘well this guy is very good. But possibly it is a bit “weird for the sake of weird”, and maybe some of this would be better told in a visual media form like comics’. The more I read, however, the more I ate those words and came to totally love the book. Yes I found ‘magical London’ chaotic and confusing initially, but it was also Billy’s first real introduction to it too and it was meant to be a chaotic and confusing experience.
Miéville’s London is a strange place. London is. It’s clever and screwed-up and not in the least like your standard ‘urban fantasy’. He doesn’t just import standard fantasy creatures and magic into a modern day city setting, he invents his own types of magic and creatures – brutal, urban, and modern by their very nature, adapts old types of magic to fit with their modern environment. Magic is almost intrinsically linked with the city – in no case more obvious than the Londonmancers, seers and oracles who read the ‘entrails’ and signs of the city to diving the future. Of course this isn’t entirely ‘new’, London is a very popular setting for modern fantasy and British authors have been doing weird and wonderful things with it for a long time – Neverwhere first came out 15 years ago (though I’m ashamed to say I’m only familiar with the comic adaptation) and I’m sure there are older examples – but Miéville does do it well. Unlike Aaronovitch (who also takes magical London in his own direction) Miéville doesn’t constantly reference places and areas of the city with road-guide precision and accompanying explanations of their history, these sorts of specifics are used quite sparingly in fact, but what he does do is capture the feel of the city. I’m not as familiar with London as I would like to be, but if London had a magical underbelly I can believe it would be something pretty close to this.
Quite apart from the setting I found the characters interesting – something I have always struggled with when reading Gaiman where I love the concepts and ideas, I’m never quite sure about the execution, and I don’t really know why I should care at all about the characters (of the three Neil Gaiman books I’ve read American Gods is the most guilty of this). Miéville, for me at least, doesn’t fall into this trap of having characters come second to concept. I liked Billy, I liked his growth from confused curator to understanding this new world he’s entered better than many of its regular inhabitants – and all without being a Mary-Sue. I loved Dane (I know I shouldn’t he’s a violent thug of a religious fanatic I’m a pacifist atheist, but I do), I found Kath Collingswood just as frustrating as I’m sure her colleagues must but grudgingly respected her anyway, and I thought Wati was great (a shabti that’s gained sentience, led an underworld rebellion against slavery and is now a trade unionist for magical familiars, everything about his character is pretty much designed to appeal to me). Even Goss and Subby, who are basically ‘just another cheerfully chatty sociopath murderer and his creepy silent friend’ manage to be interesting – and oh so very creepy.
The plot – and I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers here that aren’t already in the blurb – was a twisty turny yarn, exploring the depths of magical (or ‘knacking’) London, with so many false avenues that it left me turning page after page to work out where it was going, trying to second guess what would happen next, who had taken the squid, why, and just how was it all going to cause the end(s) of the world? Am happy to say that I did get a few things right, even if only just before they were revealed to the characters.
All in all a great read; great concepts, good characters, wonderful imagery, great atmosphere and as far from a crappy Tolkien rip-off as you can get. I probably wouldn’t want to pick up another of his books straight away, I can see how if you read too much of this stuff all at once it could come off as ‘weird for the sake of weird’, but he’s definitely on my list of authors I need to read more of.