krakenEvery time I read a blurb about one of China Miéville’s books, I think, “Oh, that sounds wonderful — he sounds like an author who’s right up my alley.” And I have friends, too, who love him and all his New Weirdness, and they’re always encouraging me to read more of his work (ones I haven’t read yet always turn out to be his best, go figure.) But I’ve had a couple of discouraging experiences now: I didn’t get on at all with The City & the City (a concept I found fascinating but dully executed) and Railsea was okay (trains! giant moles! Ahab!) but didn’t blow me away. Still, I thought: third time’s the charm, yes?

I have to tell you right now that my personal motto is “Don’t eff with anything from the deep ocean.” There are some things with which people should not meddle, folks, and when we sink into that deep blackness, that’s where we find most of it. From angler fish to Cthulhu, it all makes me want to curl up with a blankie. So when I chose Kraken, Miéville’s book about a giant squid-god (!), I had some sense of what I was getting into. But not enough — oh no, not enough.

Everything starts when Billy Harrow, an unassuming curator at the Darwin Centre, is giving a museum tour and discovers that the eight-meter giant squid specimen — Architeuthis dux — is completely missing, tank and preservatives and all. Just gone. This theft (is it a theft?) launches Billy and a set of the unlikeliest imaginable characters into a whirling tornado of events: the disappearance of the squid, which turns out to be a dark deep-sea god, has somehow, inexorably set the world on a path to apocalypse — or rather, apocalypses, as rival cults fight like street gangs to get their end-of-world scenario in first.

London itself, as in much of Miéville’s fiction, is one of the strongest presences in the book, and a number of the supporting characters spring from it. Below the simmering surface there is a whole economy of the weird: there are Londonmancers who can split open the sidewalks and read the city’s guts; there are horrifying paranormal hit men who work for bosses who are living tattoos on other men’s backs; there are familiars on strike for better working conditions all over the city (pigeons and cats and breezes walking picket lines, and their union leader, who spends much of the plot incarnated in a Captain Kirk action figure); there is a special special branch of the police force set up to deal with cults and the paranormal, and at least one of the officers on the team is a pretty bangin’ witch. The sea itself is a speaking character. Are you getting the idea?

Miéville’s prose is fizzy, dark, and funny, with lots of shaggy-dog style jokes, puns, and pop-cultural references that come bursting into the grittiness. As the great squid leads the world toward an apocalyptic burning, and as Billy and his new, impossibly strange associates run and fight against doom, Miéville is keeping all his plates spinning. Or, not plates: molluscs, clownfish, coral, moray eels.

In Kraken, Miéville is both enjoying and satirizing urban fantasy, and having a great time doing it. The novel has original ideas coming out of its pockets. But in some ways, the plot is so action-packed that it weighs down on the characters, who never really make it past the stage of being caricatures. Neil Gaiman’s books, or Nick Harkaway’s, give us bubbling-up fabulous ideas, and also characters we can connect to; Miéville’s — for the third time now, with me — is a great piece of original weirdery, but without emotional resonance or wider connection. In the end, I think it’s a squid pro quo I’m not willing to undertake.

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15 Responses to Kraken

  1. Jeanne says:

    Oooh, ooh! You compared this one to Harkaway! And you mentioned satire! How can I resist?

    • Jenny says:

      The plot was as fun and digressive as one of Harkaway’s, but I thought a lot of the heart was missing. Still, I got on with this one better than either of the others I’d tried. You might like it quite a bit, especially the funny parts. Give it a try!

  2. Kristen M. says:

    So, I first read Un Lun Dun which is Mieville’s only YA book and it is quite lovely – sort of a more nerdy Neverwhere. Then I tried The City and the City and only got through a couple of chapters before quitting. This is the only one of his books that I kept on my TBR. The same as it was for you, it’s kind of my “last chance for Mieville” book before just sticking with rereading Un Lun Dun forever.

    • Jenny says:

      Railsea is also a YA book, and I liked it fine (though it didn’t perform magic for me.) I didn’t realize Un Lun Dun was YA or I might have tried it instead of Kraken — I thought his approach to YA was pretty good. I thought this one was much more enjoyable than The City & the City — give it a try, anyway!

  3. Elle says:

    Oh, my God, now I really want to read this. Even with the flattish characters, it looks like a soul-brother to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere!

    • Jenny says:

      I had not thought of that comparison, but with the urban fantasy aspect to it, you’re not wrong! There’s so much London in it, and they’re always running all over it trying to solve a mystery of sorts. It’s grittier than Neverwhere, and heavier, but I would say it’s definitely a valid comparison.

  4. I adore Mieville’s books, and have done ever since I first read him. But they aren’t easy to read, in the sense that they have a real, aching sense of loss in most of them, from various reasons and causes. Try “The Scar,” or “Scar,” I can’t recall exactly what the title is. I can’t promise you that you’ll like it more than you liked Kraken, in fact, there’s really a serious sense of pain in it which might make it even harder to read whereas there’s something fun-loving going on in “Kraken,” but I believe it will reassure you as to the quality of his work.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t mind reading about pain! My problem is that in my (admittedly limited, with only three books under my belt) experience with Mieville’s work, he tends to focus on the coruscating brilliance of his ideas and plot, to the detriment of his character development and the emotional resonance of his work. There’s no denying that his ideas are amazing, or that his plots (if digressive and, well, whackadoodle) are well-shaped. But for me, it’s a little like reading a Rube Goldberg device.

  5. The Reading Bug says:

    “Squid pro quo” – hats off for such a groan-worthy pun. But help me out here, because I really am not sure if I should try Mieville – is there a contemporary author you could compare him to? – you’ve said he’s not really like Gaiman.

    • Jenny says:

      In some ways, I think he is like Gaiman — Elle pointed out the similarity to Neverwhere above. He writes astonishingly original urban fantasy, much of it examining ideas of class, which a lot of other fantasy authors don’t bother to do. (My understanding is that he’s an anarchist.) In this novel, the parts about the magician’s familiars on strike are viciously funny, but also touching. My only complaint about him is that his characters — for me, at least — don’t stand up to the weight of his ideas, where with Gaiman the characters and the connections are the heart of the story, the reason for reading the fantasy in the first place. Part of it depends, I suppose, on why you yourself are reading.

  6. Jeane says:

    I’ve seen reviews of this book before, which intrigued me enough to add it to my list- so how did it escape my attention before that it’s an urban fantasy? (Un Lun Dun didn’t work for me, I don’t think it even made it onto my blog as a DNF. But my daughter liked it!)

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve heard Un Lun Dun praised in lots of places. I think Mieville does a lot with cities in general, and London specifically — and this is another book where he does that.

  7. I would add to your motto that you should also never eff with the deep ocean itself. The ocean is dark and full of terrors especially considering we have still not seen most of it. Scary.

    “Squid pro quo is genius.” You are a genius. And I’ve had similar experiences with Mieville, although I’m going to try at least Un Lun Dun before I give him up as a bad lot. We’ll see.

  8. Stefanie says:

    “squid pro quo”! I am going to be laughing over that one all day! I do like Mieville quite a lot though I understand how he is not everyone’s cuppa. I haven’t read this one yet and now you have made me want to read it really soon. Unfortunately I have so much on my reading pile right now it will have to wait. Sigh

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