Kraken by China Mieville

Kraken by China Miéville

Published by Macmillan

ISBN: 9780333989500

400 pages May 2010 (ARC galley received.)

Review by Mark Yon

After the interesting reaction to The City and the City,(reviewed here)  we get Kraken, which is, dare I say it (and to borrow an oft-used phrase), a different kettle of fish.

Interestingly a contemporary novel, it combines China’s previous interest with urban areas (in the case, mainly London and the Natural History Museum), with the usual slippages of place and space, to the urban underworld and secret cults, a Lovecraftian tale of squid-gods and its acolytes. Anyone mention Cthulhu yet? Expect many to draw similarities, though China’s tale is, perhaps expectedly, much more complex and less straightforward.

What wins here again is China’s mix of mundane contemporary urban life and the unworldly. The beginning is refreshingly normal, spiked with that Mieville savvy vision of life in a big city now.

The tale starts with the theft of a huge kraken from the London Natural History Museum. Billy Harrow, a preserver at the Museum, soon finds himself taken hostage by a kraken-worshipping cult, the Church of God Kraken, who sees him as a prophet heralding the end of the world.

Involved in the investigation of the kraken-theft and then the disappearance of Billy are the FRSC – the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit. Led by the strange Mulder and Scully-like Baron and Collingwood and a consultant called Finch, they are also reaching the conclusion that they must find Billy in order to stop apocalyptic disaster.

When Billy, aided by church acolyte Dane, escape, we also have in pursuit the creepy assassins Goss and Subby, a duo with a touch of Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar, sent by The Tattoo, a scary gangster of the otherworld type, to retrieve them.

As the tale progresses, Billy’s run leads to him being drawn deeper into un-reality and things really start to go weird. Oddly, in a book full of odd, the shock of the strange is actually less obvious, having been effectively foreshadowed and gently evolved.  We have working Star Trek phasers, people in glass jars, ghostly policemen in limbo, familiars picketing on strike, and a whole manner of the weird that are so engagingly China. Kitsch used intelligently.

The books lengthy narrative involves a trawl through city alleys and derelict buildings and amongst the shady denizens of a historical urban environment – the Londonmancers, the god of the sea, and many that I hadn’t heard of. It is a tour-de-force of all things odd, from a skilful writer managing to keep many things spinning in the air at once.

Perhaps surprising to many will be the dark humour that diffuses throughout the novel. Though many of his books have it, the humour of Kraken is dark yet much more palpable. Could this be Mieville having fun? This is, in that respect, more like Un Lun Dun than The City and the City, though undeniably darker and most definitely adult.

For many this will be a pleasing return to genre roots, of sorts. Aspects of the bizarre creatures of Perdido Street Station and The Scar are convincingly mixed with the urban savvy of King Rat and Un Lun Dun.

 Impressively literate, crafty, and yet reliably China. Recommended.

Mark Yon, April 2010.

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