Plunging upward from the black underworld: China Mieville’s ‘Kraken’

There are a few authors who literally make make me bounce up and down on my seat with childlike anticipation when I hear that they have a new book on the way. Neal Stephenson and Peter F. Hamilton; Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon; Stephen King and Neil Gaiman; Terry Pratchett and China Mieville.

Mieville writes fantasy. But he writes fantasy like no one else I’ve ever read. His worlds are gloriously messy, his characters refuse to be pigeon-holed, and his use of language is poetry-deft. He also manages to have a higher idea-to-paragraph ratio than just about anyone else I’ve ever encountered. He is, I think, my favourite living author, though caveat lector: if you want books to curl up with, try someone else (like Pratchett). Mieville’s do the rather more dangerous thing of setting off fireworks inside your living brain.

Mieville writes cities. Of his seven novels, three (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council) are set in and around the city and polities of New Crobuzon; one (The City & The City) is set in the fictional eastern European city(s) of Beszel and Ul Qoma; and three (King Rat, Un Lun Dun and Kraken) are set in London.

Kraken, Mieville’s most recent book, concerns the impossible theft of a preserved giant squid from the Darwin Centre, at the side of the Natural History Museum. Despite being in a huge tank of preservative, the 8-and-a-half metre Architeuthis Dux is no longer in the building, and has left no trace of how it disappeared. Its curator, Billy Harrow, must first deal with the suspicions of the Metropolitan Police’s Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit and then attempt to navigate through the increasingly dangerous and incomprehensible undercurrents of a London to which he has never been exposed – a London where the guardian angels of museums go to war, where cults’ rival apocalypses duel in the night sky, where a man who’s died hundreds of times keeps a Tribble, where the sea has an embassy, and where extreme origami can compress a cash register through inconceivable dimensions. Billy must find the squid, because there are those who worship it as a god, and there are those who believe it can bring about the end of the world. And after what he’s seen, Billy’s no longer sure that they’re wrong…

Of all Mieville’s works, this book most resembles the New Crobuzon books, in flavour if nothing else, but Mieville has eased up on the mesmeric, incantatory prose that defines that trilogy. Kraken is far and away the funniest of his books – there are some wicked one liners, and the line “One took hold with autumn-gutter fingers of the closest attackers and bit exactly as rooftop bites” reminds me of Douglas Adams’ playing with metaphor – and possibly the most accessible (though personally I think The City & The City, which in some respects is Mieville’s most atypical book, an easier entrance point). That being said, enough of Mieville’s characteristic linguistic flourishing remains that longtime fans will not be disappointed.

There are, too, some wonderful characters, such as Wati, the statue-bound guiding spirit behind the strike of London’s unionised familiars; and Goss & Subby, a pair of murderers-for-hire who bring to mind Gaiman’s Croup & Vandemar, Pratchett’s Pin & Tulip, Tarantino’s Jules & Vincent… But Goss & Subby are so much worse. So, so much worse.  By the end of the book you too will fear them nearly as much as the characters do.

I loved this book. It’s about faith, belief, the city and identity and the politics of belonging. It is (as we Mieville fans have come to expect and demand) brilliantly written, with one of the most intricate structures I have seen in a very long time (every little piece of arcane and obscure information turns out to be relevant by the end). Its beguiling cast of grotesques are never rendered unreal through unfamiliarity: we recognise Billy, or WPC Collingswood, or Marge and her sentient iPod.

I recommend Kraken unhesitatingly. Five stars!

And your moment of Zen today:

The fishing boats bob at the quayside as a J72 wheezes past, while a V3 clanks over the suspension bridge

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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