Posted on September 16, 2010 by GRIM
Available at Amazon.com
China Mieville is one of my favourite authors and has energised the alternative/urban fantasy or the ‘New Weird’ for me as much as Peter F Hamiltion re-energised British science fiction for me. I wasn’t so keen on The City & The City but his Bas Lag novels and his somewhat similarly themed children’s book Un-Lun-Dun are acts of pre-meditated brilliance. Kraken lacks the pure and unadulterated awesomeness of Perdidot Street Station but is much better and more engaging than The City & The City and closer in theme to King Rat, somewhere between that and the Bas-Lag novels in terms of wierdness. Comparisons with the last book I reviewed, Into the Nightside, are likely to be inevitable in the course of this review.
Kraken follows the story of Billy Harrow, a curator at The Natural History Museum in London who begins to get caught up in strange events when one particular specimen, that of a Giant Squid, mysteriously and impossibly vanishes from the museum with no evidence at all of how it came to disappear. Billy is a bit of a cloistered academic, living in a rarefied world of specimen cataloguing and preservation with a special talent for cephlapod preservation – so no wonder that he ends up both suspected and examined by those who take an interest, criminal and mystical in the events.
Initially Billy is a passive victim of events, though he can’t help sticking his nose into them and poking around, wanting to know what happened to his prime specimen. In so doing he gets the attention of a special – if unconventional – police unit who seem to hold onto some very secret and very special information and appear to be a powerful occult organisation. In a flipside to conventional conspiracy lore however, while the government and police do have a handle on the occult, they’re considered a bit of a joke, a relatively ineffectual player in London’s secret, occult underground.
Billy get’s dragged further and further into the strange world of rituals, magick and cults as the story progresses, eventually finding the balls and knowledge to make his own way, even while surrounded by squid-cult berserkers, activist golems and deadly origami experts. Eventually Billy emerges as a hero, embracing the occult and the strange and emerging as a power within that world as the plot surrounding the squid unfolds and the secret war over its pickled corpse bleeds over into the real world.
Parallelling and trailing after Billy’s descent into the weird, like a literature version of a musical round is the story of Marge, partner of one of Billy’s friends – Leon – who ends up killed because of his peripheral involvement. Unwilling to let Leon and Billy’s disappearance go she trails after them and gets sucked into the underworld in a similar manner to the descent of Billy. For me this felt like China playing with our expectations of narrative and bringing an ice-cold shock of the ‘real’ into the fantasy world. Why would a modern woman sit helplessly by like some medieval damsel and wait for the police to solve such a problem? Why couldn’t she get off her arse and do something herself – which she does. While this could have been an afterthough or an overly PC attachment, unnecessary to the novel, for me the ‘echo’ of Billy’s descent reinforces the theme and adds greatly to the overall arc of the story.
There are many great characters scattered throughout the book. Billy is initially a somewhat annoying wishy-washy type but grows and develops over the course of the story in a noticable way that makes you appreciate him. Marge’s doggedness and determination make her an admirable character while WPC Collingswood – a foul mouthed, chain-smoking police witch – is a strong female character that brings some much needed humour and spite into the book, without being a politically correct cipher. Goss and Subby, two of the primary villains, are a little disappointing by comparison to the others, a combination of mute and verbose that’s been done better elsewhere and while both sinister and blackly humorous they never seem to quite gel.
This is a great book and a return to the full-on strangeness that makes China so engaging as a writer, bubbling over with ideas that seem to indicate a return to the energy and inspiration that seemed to be lacking from Iron Council (the last of the three Bas-Lag novels). Comparisons with other urban-fantasy/new weird titles are unavoidable seeing as it has all but become its own genre and, to refer to my last review (The Nightside) this one, while containing over the top action and weirdness, manages to contain it by introducing it bit by bit, rather than cramming your face into it right from the get go. It’s also consistently and constantly obvious that these places, these people, these things are secret – at least normally – and so the strangeness exists within an established context that allows you to maintain your suspension of disbelief much better.
Review by James ‘Grim’ Desborough