Book Review: Kraken, by China Miéville

Kraken, by China Miéville. Ballantine Books, Del Rey Paperback, Random House Publishing. 2010. $16.

I’ll pick out some geography in a little bit. Kraken was an immensely fun and worthwhile read, one of the best reads I’ve experienced in a long time. I don’t want to sound dismissive of the good books I’ve read, crafted by fine authors. All of us who read plenty get slapped in the face by writing on rare occasions, writing so electrical our neurons go bink-bank-boink-hey-this-is-brilliant! Kraken is such a novel.

Ray Bradbury was my first brain-AED. An AED is the automated external defibrillator, and Bradbury was my brain-AED. Somehow, some writers are able to arrange normal words in such a way as to spell-bind a reader, beguiling them to forget work, school, eating, sleeping. Normal words, words used every day by normal people yet when Bradbury pens them, everyday images in my mind are over-written with new bits, new zeros and ones, and the real world my eyes capture is replaced by the virtual world of Mars, or a country fair.

For some people, Tolkien was their AED, or maybe C.S. Lewis. Or, maybe J.K. Rowling.

The inherent danger of finding a fantastic author is the danger of being off-put by the author’s mastery of language. “Wow…this is nothing short of brilliant. If I try to write, how will I ever be able to reach the bar Bradbury has set?” Or, Asimov, Piers Anthony, Clarke, Benford, Brin, and others, I’m sure. Reading a great book can be a uniquely humbling experience. Bittersweet.

China Miéville (“mee-AY-vill”) is one of those authors whose writing will connect your angular gyrus to jumper cables and turn your engine over. Miéville is the type of author whom after you read one book you’ll feel an unnatural compulsion to acquire all others. I’m suspicious writing is his knack. In fact, I tried to do such a thing today and my local Books-A-Million lived up to my continual lack of expectations. Not a single Miéville novel. Not a single Guy Gavriel Kay novel, either. Mind-boggling. But, they have millions of Patterson. Go figure.

All that being said, if you don’t like urban fantasy then forget all the above and wait for my next review, World Order, by Henry Kissinger. After that, I’m not sure. I’ve got 47 books in my “to-read” stack.

Kraken opens with the startling discovery someone has managed to nick an exhibit from the British Museum of Natural History. I’ve been to the museum and, yes, there are lots of items which might be tempting to pilfer. Small, delicate relics easily pocketed away if one were able to dodge the security counter-measures. No, the nicked relic in question is the eponymous kraken, Architeuthis dux. The giant squid. And not simply the squid, as if that endeavor in and of itself were easy, but the entire bloody formalin-filled tank plus giant squid simply disappeared. Billy Harrow, the curator of the exhibit, plus museum visitors anticipating seeing the specimen of a lifetime, enter the exhibit room as normal, only to behold the emptiness of the specimen room, home to tank and squid.

What follows next and thereafter is a really fun and complex set of events and circumstances. The police are called, but the normal police hand the investigation over to the London equivalent of Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Those of you who read Hellboy know what I’m talking about. Except in this case we have the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime (FSRC) Unit. London, it seems, is awash with sects, cults, and agencies attached to all manner of deities, both real and imagined. Telling the two apart gets confusing. Thus, the London metro police department has a special unit for when crimes seem a little knacked. While the FSRC goes about trying to determine which cult might have stolen the squid, Billy gets wrapped up in the mystery much to his own dismay.

Whoever has the squid might be using the fleshy corpse to bring about the end of the world, and London is home to untold numbers of people, agencies, and beings and entities who want that power. And, as it turns out, some are be paid by others simply to track down and locate the squid – at all costs. Billy, as curator of squid, is seen by some as the holy man of the squid, the prophet of the squid, the only person to have touched and cared for the creature during the preservation process. He really isn’t happy about this new-found attention, and the evil literally oozing from the London stonework.

As the realization builds within Billy the squid, the squid cult, and those attempting the attain the squid really could bring about the end of the world, he forms an uneasy alliance with a former squid-cult member and together they set about scouring London, hoping to be the first to find and secure the formalin-infused squid-god. In doing so they run across many of London’s magical and mercurial denizens.

And the tale of pursuit is just simply so much fun.

I’ve been describing Kraken to people, “If Douglas Adams’ and Terry Pratchett’s books had conjugal relations after the bookstore went dark, Kraken would be the literary love-child.” Miéville has his own voice to be sure but for those who have read Adams and/or Pratchett I think this comparison forms a decent baseline.

A sample:

     There was a whole slew of skill-sets in the room: miracle-sniffing, unwitchery, iron blood. Some of those present worked in teams, some alone. Some had no occult skills at all, were only extraordinarily lucky with contacts and good at everyday soldierly expertises like killing. Of the others, there were those who would disguise themselves when they left this congenial atmosphere: the miasmic entities drifting at head-height like demon-faced farts would reenter their hosts; the huge woman dressed in a reverse-polarity rainbow would reinstitute her little glamour and be a teenager in a supermarket uniform again.

from Kraken; page 182

Miéville crafts prose specific enough to guide us to the notion the room is replete with mystical forces, agencies, and entities, but vague enough to allow our imaginations to uniquely interpret and build the required imagery.

Miéville is English, writing about London as someone who not merely has their hand on the pulse of London, but as someone whom pretty much knows every other bum to bonnet detail. He is London’s dermatologist and proctologist, internist and podiatrist, perhaps shaman or even Londonmancer.

Now, let’s hit some geography.

Billy Harrow and his friend, Leon, live in the Hoxton district of Hackney, Hackney being a borough of London on the north side of the Thames.

Chapter 28 begins with a contingent of fat beetles moving from Pimlico by wall-top, sidewalks, and sewers to a workshop in Islington.

The map shows a couple different routes a person driving might take. Google Maps does not do routes for insects, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Anyone familiar with urban fantasy knows one of the best places to find research support for the supernatural is the library. The older the library the better. Better still if the library is the British Library.

We all know for the most part law enforcement tends to deny anything having to do with magic or supernatural circumstances. Not the London Metropolitan Police. They have their own SVU-style branch. Located in Cricklewood, the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes (FSRC) unit has an office for handling crimes involving knacking.

Even the bad guys remember the days of taking a geography class.

Do you remember when she was in Geography with us and he kept nicking all the pens for the overhead projector?” Goss said. “I knew you liked her then. I know you did stuff for Dane, that’s why your here, where is he?”

And then awful stuff happens.

London is not the only old city with a complete compliment of citymancers. Other “psychopoli” have their own folks who look after and act as energy conduits for the urban organism. Paris, France, has Paristurges; Warsaw, Poland has Warsawtarchs; and Berlin, Germany, has the Berlinimagi. These people are as important to the function of the city as any police officer, firefighter, or rubbish collector. One would never realize who these people are; they have been around since perhaps the time when the island of Great Britain rose from the sea, the dawn of Albion, and the days of giants. But, they work as librarians, or clerks in odd shops in peculiar neighbors, or technicians in service to the water department. They could be your friends, neighbors, or post carrier.

Kraken is a marvelous novel. Don’t expect wizards or time-consuming spells resulting in cataclysmic blasts of mythic energies carving out huge tracts of pavement or destroying buildings. There are no people running around waving wands spewing rainbow sparks, reducing people to ashes or wrapping them in spidery-webs. Miéville’s London is subtle, happening right in front of you or right under you. That line of pigeons walking around in front of your favorite coffeeshop? Yeah, that is not coincidence. They are sending a message to the head barista, or the manager. Those squirrels at your office window chewing nuts? Not coincidence. They really are spying on you. That guy who is walk-skipping along the sidewalk caught in his own moment? He is on a secret mission and stepping hexes out on the sidewalk to hide traces of his passage from others who have a knack for sniffing out magic.

If you’ve read other Miéville novels and not this one, pick this one up. If you have never read Miéville and you like fantasy or are just looking for something fun and imaginative, I think Kraken would be a good start.


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