Kraken – China Miéville

Ah China Miéville, the Guardian reader’s acceptable face of Sci-fi; albeit shaven-headed and assortedly be-pierced.  Lots of readers, who would otherwise never touch Weird Fiction with the proverbial barge pole, devoured his 2009 existential detective thriller The City and The City on the back of a veritable slew of awards and unprecedented attention (for a book of its kind) from the mainstream literary media. Of course this is no bad thing, in fact it’s great – more people should read experimental fiction.  But unfortunately this lead to his 2010 follow-up Kraken receiving a somewhat lukewarm reception from the popular press, as Miéville abandoned the sci-fi-lite of The City and The City that had proven so popular, and returned instead to his characteristic out-and-out fantasy weirdness.  Perhaps this shows that all those new-found converts to Weird Fiction weren’t quite as ready to embrace the oeuvre as they’d attested, which is a shame, because Kraken is mesmerisingly brilliant; complex and surprisingly funny, it’s a frenetic gatling gun of ideas.

I guess it’s become kinda de rigueur of me to begin my reviews with a short discussion/description of the genre space in which any given book functions, but darn it Kraken has me stumped.  The most obvious moniker would be the utterly drab ‘Urban Fantasy’, but lest this conjure up images of earnestly non-applicable Twilight-equse teen fiction bullshit, I’m not going to use it.  On the other end of the spectrum, of course, we have the pigeon-holing obsessed theorists who like to throw-up the sort of compound genre label vomit that’s ironically all the more baffling for its specificity, you know, stuff like: “Postmodern-Cthulhu cult –New Wave-London Noir” Quite.  So where does this leave me?  I’m not sure what to call it: Kraken is just really weird, and the best focus I can give this review is to describe (with attempts at explanation) quite how unique it is – but don’t worry, I’ll try to think of some half-decent genre tag by the end of this review.  Promise.

Blurrrb: Billy Harrow is a curator for the Natural History Museum in London.  While giving the Museum’s much-feted tour, Billy discovers that a giant squid, complete with glass case and all such Damien Hirst-ish paraphernalia, has vanished from the Museum.  Billy is soon recruited by a cult of Kraken-worshipping religious nut-jobs who’re desperate to get the squid back, unharmed.  But, it turns out, large sections of a hidden London also want to know what happened to the squid: from bizarre magic users, to worshipers of the sea, to an army of rodent familiars, a living tattoo and a man who alters Star Trek memorabilia so that it actually works.  And trust me when I say that this is just the tip of a very weird iceberg.  Events escalate and get odder by the page, until an end of the world prophecy looks likely to come-true, unless the squid is found and a big vat of ink is bleached…

I know it sounds trite, but in Kraken London operates as much as protagonist as place.  The book espouses the same metropolitophilia that’s such a common idiosyncrasy of many(/all?) of China Miéville’s novels, but here the city-as-character cliché is taken to extremes in the ‘Londonmancers’, a sect of divining cultists who can, literally, talk to the city streets.  This ardent mythologising of London as magical hinterland may put off, if not alienate, readers disinclined to yet another London-centric Fantasy of the Neverwhere ilk (I admit, I was anxious at first), but all the same, I’d encourage you to give Kraken a go; it presents a very different fantasy London from others you might have encountered.

In fact, it’s a testament to Miéville’s skilled characterisation that in a novel so rampant with strange magics and utterly weird plot twists, it’s the characters themselves that most held my attention.  Understandably Billy is a blank-canvass of a protagonist, but he’s tolerably bland because he functions as sympathetic point-of-view character for readers who, likewise, find themselves in a baffling landscape that requires constant explanation.  But a neat side-effect of Billy’s dreariness is that the novel’s supporting cast (already pretty bonkers) stands out even more by comparison.  Kath Collingswood is a magically well-endowed yet profane police officer whose perfectly non-pc outbursts add a comic depth to what could otherwise have been an entirely plot-mechanising and lazy character piece; Marginalia is an under-used but charming artist who assumes the mantle of reluctant amateur detective with pleasingly emotive results; and Goss and Subby are an old-man-young-boy duo – supernatural henchmen-for-hire – who’ve haunted and terrified magical London for centuries and who, frankly, are the most terrifying baddies I’ve ever encountered: a fact augmented by their grammatically non-standard, dreamtype dialogue and propensity for acts of horrific violence that belies the youthful appearance of Subby and seemingly frail nature of Goss.

Further to the book’s multifarious dramatis personae is Miéville’s predilection for drafting dorkishly detailed systems of magic and religion, each of the latter replete with a whole host of eschatological theories and expectations.  Many of Kraken’s detractors have criticised this world building, drawing explicit focus to the amount of neologism that dominates the narrative.  My counter-argument would be that the vast majority of these so-called ‘neologisms’ are merely compounds of pre-existing words (mostly nouns) and require relatively little decoding in order to fully understand: “unhabitants”, “eschatonaut”, “pistonpunk”, “heresiarch” etc. – a refusal to engage with such fun and unusual language is the hallmark of a lazy reader, I feel.

Kraken is linguistically exuberant, and long, snaking compound-complex sentences are very much the grammatic standard, but such is China Miéville’s aptitude for beautiful phrasing that convergence of new/scientific/jargon words with classical forms of expression are always a joy and never a chore to read:

Water gulped at the ChaosNazis; seawater freezing and London muddy sucked and pulled them down with eddies and undertows it imported from its wide ocean self.

Supplementing such oceanic imagery is a nice visual preoccupation with ink, which not only functions as call-back to the squiddy premise of the book, but also fetishises the book as artefact in the reader’s hands in a religiously eulogistic way (remember the squid is a God to many characters).  It’s not a novel obsessed with narrative form, but Kraken draws attention to the intersection of ink as both physical fact and metaphor for consciousness – ink as transmitting device is an idea Miéville grabs and really runs with, investigating the problems of articulating the chaos of London, magic and even consciousness with the apparent rigidity of the printed word.

There’s the occasional gaffe, for example a constant name-dropping of contemporary Hip-Hop artists that I found embarrassing in a white-and-middle-class-but-I-actually-quite-like-that-kind-of-music-anyway way.  I think Miéville did this to ground Kraken in a “realist” setting markedly different from the otherworld fantasy that has dominated his previous output: the real-life pop culture references seem to say ‘this really could be London’, but also hint at ‘look how much music I’ve heard of’, which is considerable more naff.  But as criticisms go, this is barely worth mentioning…

I was going to end this review with a “Kraken is kraken” type joke (‘kraken’ – ‘crackin’…geddit?), but test audiences did not respond well to such a terribly over-worked pun.  So you’ll have to settle for: Kraken is awesome.  It mightn’t be the straight-up genre piece with nods to Weird that fans of The City and The City were hoping for, but China Miéville is nothing if not diverse.  If you’ve read his Bas-Lag novels you should feel relatively comfortable (even if he does manage to last an enormous 200 pages before introducing his first union strike action).  I’ve still not decided how to categorise Kraken, so let’s just call it a great big London magic end of the world squid novel with phasers and living ink.  That’ll do.