Krakenby Published 29 Jun 2010
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With this outrageous new novel, China Miéville has written one of the strangest, funniest, and flat-out scariest books you will read this—or any other—year. The London that comes to life in Kraken is a weird metropolis awash in secret currents of myth and magic, where criminals, police, cultists, and wizards are locked in a war to bring about—or prevent—the End of All Things.
In the Darwin Centre at London’s Natural History Museum, Billy Harrow, a cephalopod specialist, is conducting a tour whose climax is meant to be the Centre’s prize specimen of a rare Architeuthis dux—better known as the Giant Squid. But Billy’s tour takes an unexpected turn when the squid suddenly and impossibly vanishes into thin air.
As Billy soon discovers, this is the precipitating act in a struggle to the death between mysterious but powerful forces in a London whose existence he has been blissfully ignorant of until now, a city whose denizens—human and otherwise—are adept in magic and murder.
There is the Congregation of God Kraken, a sect of squid worshippers whose roots go back to the dawn of humanity—and beyond. There is the criminal mastermind known as the Tattoo, a merciless maniac inked onto the flesh of a hapless victim. There is the FSRC—the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit—a branch of London’s finest that fights sorcery with sorcery. There is Wati, a spirit from ancient Egypt who leads a ragtag union of magical familiars. There are the Londonmancers, who read the future in the city’s entrails. There is Grisamentum, London’s greatest wizard, whose shadow lingers long after his death. And then there is Goss and Subby, an ageless old man and a cretinous boy who, together, constitute a terrifying—yet darkly charismatic—demonic duo.
All of them—and others—are in pursuit of Billy, who inadvertently holds the key to the missing squid, an embryonic god whose powers, properly harnessed, can destroy all that is, was, and ever shall be.
Unpredictable, funny, and chock-full of weird with a side of SQUIDDITY apocalypse - and yet (oh blasphemy!) Kraken is my first 3-starred Miéville. This hurts my fangirl soul.
But here's the thing - even the weakest book by His Chinaness is still better that the strongest offerings of most other writers. Therefore me giving it 3 stars in NO WAY puts it in the same category that some of the drecks that I've read. I liked this one. It's just that it in NO WAY measures up to the usual amazing and brain-popping experience I came to expect from CM.
I think of this book as a grittier weirder Miéville-edition of Gaiman's Neverwhere. The strange "other" London where things are not what they seem, Goss & Subby = Croup and Vandemar, Billy is another Richard Mayhews, the ordinary wide-eyed chap dragged through the ever-escalating weirdness by experienced warriors, destined for something bigger in the end. But really, Gaiman is more Miéville-lite whereas Miéville is Gaiman full roast, black, hold creamer and sugar, add extra weird. Usually this would be a recipe for success as far as I'm concerned. Alas, Kraken misses the mark a bit...
(All this sea creature talk in the book makes me crave the SQUIDDITY deliciousness, y'all!)
Now, here's what I loved - for the sake of the oreo-cookie effect here (yes, calamari squid talk DID make me hungry, so 'scuse me) - before breaking my heart with the less awesome parts:
"In a city like London... Stop: that was an unhelpful way to think about it, because there was no city like London. That was the point."- Miéville is amazing at creating fully alive weird cities and making them be real protagonists of his stories (examples: New Crobuzon, Armada, Beszél/Ul Qoma, UnLondon). Here, his setting is contemporary London that apparently has a secret supernatural side to it, which is still firmly ground in reality. I mean, it's the place where the paranormal creatures form picket lines, for crying out loud.
"The strike paralysed large sections of occult industry. The economy of gods and monsters was stagnating."Which neatly takes me to my next point:
"There were pickets of insects, pickets of birds, pickets of slightly animate dirt. There were circles of striking cats and dogs, surreptitious doll-pickets like grubby motionless picnics; and flesh-puppets, pickets of what looked like and in some cases had once been humans."
- Miéville is unabashedly joyful about airing out of his political views - on politics of labor and religion in this case. Ever since reading London's Overthrow I have extra-appreciated the political musings of Dr. Miéville, PhD, the proud author of Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law.
'He knows religion is bollocks,' Collingswood said. 'He just wishes he didn't. That's why he understands the nutters. That's why he hunts them. He misses pure faith. He's jealous.'- There are so many side characters that are unbelievably fascinating and each one of them could easily merit an entire book to him/herself. The cast is quite an interesting ensemble, to say the least. However...
...it brings me to the "bad" part of the oreo cookie metaphor (actually, kind of a reversed oreo cookie, since honestly, the middle is the best part, but bear with me here, I'm hungry, okay?)
- With all the awesome side characters and fascinating side plots, this book is too overstuffed with more awesome than this story can take (maybe if he had spread the ideas over a trilogy it would have worked better). There are too many plots and ideas that he tries to tie together to make a coherent story - and it is not that successful of an attempt, honestly. The main storyline becomes not only hard to follow but is almost impossible to identify, leaving the reader to just blindly go along on this crazy ride. And combined with...
- ... the uneven pacing, it can get frustrating. Seriously, this is the first time in my Miéville-reading experience (6 books, a few short stories) that I felt the pacing was poorly done. In some sections, the story drags, in others it moves along at lightning-speed, giving you a whiplash.
- And, finally, despite the palpable threat, despite the fights and weirdness and humor, I found it hard to care about what is going to happen. The characters failed to make me completely invested in them (Billy? Ugh. Collingswood? Bleh. Dane Parnell? Kinda, but ergh. Wati? Yeah, but not enough.) I did not feel very invested, it did not have the now-expected thought-provoking quality, and did not leave me in the vague state of unease that I came to cherish as a part of my Miéville reading experience. In short, the book never became dull, but never became quite that interesting.
And to finish off the reverse Oreo comparison - here is the final layer - the good one. All the griping aside, it was a fun read, even though not the most memorable. The sheer amount of bizarro is enough to keep you chuckling and perhaps having quite vivid dreams (I know I did while reading this!). It is fun as usual to see Miéville allow his imagination run wild, taking us on the crazy plot turns that nobody could have predicted coming. It is not deep or profound or thought-provoking, but it's a good and honest fun.
"Just because someone uses something wrong doesn't mean it's useless."Final verdict - 3 stars. Read this one if you are an established Miéville fan. Probably stay clear of it if you're just trying to get into CM writing - pick up "Perdido Street Station", "Un Lun Dun", "The Scar" or "The City & The City instead and leave this for the time when you're so hooked on Miéville that you are ready to read even his grocery list (and believe me, that time WILL come!)
"You may not be interested in the gods of London, but they're interested in you."
And here is what Mr. Miéville himself has to say about Kraken (Courtesy of Seak (Bryce L.) - the interview is here; thanks, Catie, for pointing it out to me!):
Kraken, by contrast, was a kind of loving valedictory to what I hope is an enjoyable but rather chaotic kitchen-sink excess of the Bas-Lag books. It's a book all about totality, it's full of stuff, it attempts - whether successfully or not - to make a virtue of a certain kind of, I hope not exactly ill-discipline, but sort of distraction, like the book itself gets distracted, but that those distractions, I hope, are engaging. (Something that no one I've ever read does as well as Pynchon, to whom this book is, among other things, a tentacular pulp homage.)
Kraken gave me a severe case of goodreaditus, an unpleasant condition whereby as you are reading a book you are constantly thinking not about the book itself but how you are going to review it. For example I thought maybe I could borrow the voice of Cher Horowitz from Clueless
Here's the four-one-one on Billy Harrow. He's like a squid janitor, he's single, he's 24 or something, quite old, and he earns minor duckets for a thankless job. What that man needs is a good healthy boinkfest. Unfortunately, there's was a major babe drought in his life. Fortunately, when his gross giant squid gets stolen, you know, like by magic, along comes PC Collingswood and she's a total betty.
or maybe I could rewrite an old Monty Python sketch and put China Mieville on trial for extreme silliness. But no - Kraken isn't bad, it's just that I don't wanna be whimsical right now. So, in the time-honoured words of break-up speeches the world over
China, it's not you, it's me.
I had my ups and downs with this title, but in the end it's mostly all ups. The language was the biggest thorn, though in my other frames of mind, I also really enjoyed it at the same time.
What this book is not, is a quick and light read meant to delight and float through your mind like a cloud of ink.
It deserves to be savoured and gloated over, perhaps even stopping a bit to roll the cadences of copspeak off your tongue to feel its beat. I had to do it, too, before I realized that it sounded just fine. It's the reading of it that seemed jarring, almost as if it was a mirror to the jarring concepts that butted heads all throughout the maze of the story.
I was reminded, very pleasantly, of Perdido Street Station, which I also had an almost identical problem with. The worldbuilding on both of these are so damn rich and weird and well thought-out. The feel of the societies is ripe and bursting with flavor. Of course, Perdido was fantasy stationed in an alien landscape that just happened to be modern-human flavored, while this one just happened to be dark-fantasy mythospunk plopped right into the heart of modern London. The two aren't all that different. English=Alien. I watch Doctor Who. I know what I'm talking about.
Seriously, both novels weave a complex tapestry of groups and individuals with brightly colored lives that I could never forget, carrying burdens and gifts that made up for a hell of a lot of plot stretching and twists that made perfect sense in the end. The problem is in the getting there.
I had to be patient. Repeatedly.
I had to tell myself to have faith in the Kraken, but what I really wanted was to pick up the bottle.
I jest... or do I?
We got a major turf war of gods and their believers ravaging London. The prophets all agreed that the universe would end in fire, and end very soon. We've got a bumbling test-tube nerd who preserves specimens turning out to be the big hero, and we've got a security guard sacrificing his live to ink.
Was I pretty much amazed by the inclusion of so many fascinating characters? Oh hell yes. I'll never look at my fountain pen the same again, and I'm still thinking of the stitches in the mouth of a certain tattoo. And who needs lsd if you've got a dram of mollusk ink? And these are just a few of the many interesting tidbits that show up throughout the novel. It's littered with orphaned ideas and pretty turns. I mean, really, Buddhist-Jesus monks pulling a West Side Story? Talking Kirks, statues, and the patron of all fair-wage picketers, *Oh Wadi, Wadi,*.
And cold fire. What a fantastic SF twist THAT one turned out to be.
Truly, it was a satisfying wrap up. So many threads came back together to pack one hell of a punch, just like Perdido Street Station.
If I ever read this a second time, I'm going to do it slowly, savoring each turn and hint and phrase very carefully. I'm certain I'll get a lot more out of it. In the meantime, though, I can't honestly give it a full five stars. It was slow to develop, and some of Billy's blindness was a bit annoying, but it was all a matter of falling down the rabbit hole, anyway, so I decided to take the ride with him. Marge, on the other hand, was a breath of sanity throughout the text that proved to be the best steadying factor for me. Dane was a solid and thorough plot-mover, and he grew on me, too. Collinsworth? Oh, well, she's unique. :)
I did really enjoy this novel. It wasn't so much a Lovecraftian tribute as it was a Mythos tribute. Practically everything that the mythos built was pretty original. We got pieces of chaos nazis, a bit of Read Or Die, but everything else was pure extrapolation and imagination, as far as I could tell. I liked the Londonomancers and the Krakenites. Honestly, the Mythospunk was probably the very best part of the novel.
Not perfect, but there's so much to enjoy that I was very willing to see it through and I'm very glad I did.
Oh hey. An lolcat.That's new. But wait, because even though they are 1,000,000 years old in internet time, lolcats are only kittens in "offline" time, by which I mean the time by which your parents live their lives (go on, check your email right now: your dad just forwarded you a bunch of them. Hahaha Invisible Bike. I forgot about that one).
Moreover, judged by the molasses pace of the publishing industry, they're younger still. So I give props to China Miéville (you're only getting that acute accent once in this review, so enjoy it) for offering up perhaps the first blatant lolcat reference in what could be termed a major novel (certainly the only one to receive a starred review in Booklist). (This book does not count.)
But that's just one fun thing in this very fun book, one fun thing out of many. About 200 pages in, I started ripping off a tiny scrap of my bookmark every time I came across an idea so cool it would probably be a major plot point in a book less crazily mescaline-fueled. Very soon I ran out of bookmark. To be fair, I was using an oversized Post-It. Still. I don't recall making scraps of anything whilst reading Boneshaker, another ostensibly punk-leaning sci-fi romp that boringly stretches out a handful of Mieville's cast-offs into a sad excuse for an adventure.
I don't want to spoil everything. A few things were spoiled for me. Like I knew there was a real, working phaser in there. But no one told me about the real, working Tribble. One lovable character speaks through inhabiting statues, and his idea of what constitutes a statue is very broad indeed (imagine: portentous dialogue between a squid cultist and a pencil topper shaped like a unicorn). Three bad guys that are worthy enough to have their own books but don't even rate as this one's mastermind (granted, the man behind the curtain is usually just a man). Also there are these guys who read the future in London's entrails. Like, literal entrails: they cut through and pry apart pavement and the city has literal blood and organs and stuff. I spoiled that one because it was my first bookmark, but for the rest I will give page numbers: 200. 208. 234. 288. 303. 308. 322. 329. 362. 374. 385. 420 (NO WAY!). 463. I hope I got them all. Some of the pieces of paper were very small. That's probably going to be pretty annoying for the next library patron.
That's not to say it's a 5 star book, because it isn't. In fact, I am giving it 3.5, which is less than I gave The City & the City even though I had more fun reading Kraken. Because for all the ideas crammed in here (ink! squirting from the pages! um, literally at several points!), the story... is not so hot. I mean, it sounds cool, but a stolen squid god macguffin is still a macguffin, and a bland hero is still a bland hero. And the central character here is bland. He's your patented outsider, introduced into a crazy world (UnLunDun! Squid cults Gunfarmers! Paranormal cops! Wizards' familiars striking for better working conditions!) just so he can say "What the fuck?" and other characters can explain things to him. Though China is British, our hero does not, sadly, say "Wot's all this then?" though he would certainly be justified in doing so.
I was never bored or anything, don't get me wrong. Also I don't know if it would be possible to get bored reading this, unless you are bored by awesome. But sometimes it is almost boring, in that you don't really feel for any of the characters (even though I really like and would read a sequel starring several of them), and the story tends to wander off into these nifty-idea side-plots that don't strictly go anywhere. And something about reading Mieville, both of the ones I have picked up, anyway, makes me feel like my eyes are dragging through molasses or maybe I'm actually stoned (oh shit, did I really read this book?), because it takes me FOREVER and I have to read every. single. word carefully or I'll lose track of everything.
And you don't want to miss a thing, including the many squid puns. Like squidnapping (obviously) and squid pro quo (he makes you wait for that one). Missed opportunities: a cult of Siddharthists, come on. And also the lead character's name is Billy. Billy... the Squid?
Oh fine. Go write your own puns.
Like this one:
...and it was.
Four and a half squids
“Enter that room and you breached a Schwarzschild radius of something not canny, and that cephalopod corpse was the singularity.“
I rather get why Miéville’s normally fantastic fanish fans don’t like Kraken much. I will note that I’ve had intermediate success with Miéville, finding a couple of his works quite memorable and some quite putdownable. Kraken is one I enjoyed muchly, primarily due to its absurdity, the absence of didacticism, and its clever-clever use of language. Speaking of, however, I would have like a bit more on the language front, specifically the description sort of language, words that might have given more insight into what was happening. As it was, I felt rather like Arthur Dent after meeting Ford Prefect.
“Sometimes you can’t get bogged down in the how,” Baron said. “Sometimes things happen that shouldn’t, and you can’t let that detain you. But the why? we can make headway with.”
But I rather suspect idea satiation of the text was part of the point, and, indeed, Miéville says, “it was a bit of a kitchen sink” of ideas in Kraken. Again, not knocking it. The first book of Miéville’s that I truly respected and whatever else, because love isn’t the sort of word you use with that book, was Embassytown, which was a bit of a mind-bender of a science-fiction book. Science-fiction being what it is, it’s easier for me to take those realities with a grain of salt, or, in that case, with a rather large tub of popcorn to help all that salt go down, because, wow, was that book ever idea-dense. This is idea-dense too, but in a creative, silly, bizarre candy-shop sort of way, not so much a philosophical one.
“And yes, no, it couldn’t have, no disappeared, so many metres of abyss meat could not have gone… There were no giant tank- no squid-shaped holds cartoon-style in the wall. It could not have gone, but there is was, not.”
Kraken is, nominally at least, about Billy, a man who is a museum curator at the Darwin Centre. He’s leading a tour group when they discover the star attraction–a perfectly preserved specimen of a thirty-foot giant squid–has disappeared without a trace. Dane the security guard is also mysteriously absent. As the police go through their investigative routine, Billy makes a gruesome discovery in the storage rooms. A special division of police make Billy an offer, but before he can think twice, events have spiraled out of his control into weirdness. What follows is a journey across London, through a city with dissident gods and magic-workers, where “crime overlapped with faith” as Billy seeks to understand his role in world-changing events and recover the squid.
“What my colleague is getting at,” Baron said, “is we’re facing a wave of St.Johns. A bit of an epidemic of eschatologies.”
My most serious challenge was developing an emotional connection to the characters. None really seemed sympathetic, and while I’m mentioning it, Billy was more than a bit Arthur Dentish in the beginning, wandering around and saying, “what? what? I don’t understand” all the time when he really needed to get with the program. The police are little help; although they contribute to the attempts towards law-n-order, they are just as apt to handcuff those preventing the apocalypse as much as those starting one. Perhaps the one I felt most affection for was a millennia-old rebellious spirit, leading a strike of the city’s magical assistants and familiars against exploitation. The villains were truly horrific, and Miéville deserves kudos for imbuing them with scary life in such brief appearances.
“Goss and fucking Subby. Sliding shifty through Albion’s history, disappearing for ten, thirty, a hundred blessed years at a time, to return, evening all, wink wink, with a twinkle of a sociopathic eye, to unleash some charnel-degradation-for hire.
There was no specificity to Goss and Subby.”
On the other side, the language is something else, something that makes me enjoy it and yet makes my brain work a bit too, because not only does he flat out improve my vocabulary, he takes a rather deconstructionist approach to structure at times. Often it takes me a minute to work out meaning. I think. Or at least glean on to partial intention. I most definitely feel like is one Miéville that you can re-read for more meaning, if only you can stand the story. I don’t mean that in a snarky way, despite how it sounds. I’m reflection on my own experience with his works, how some were like a full five course dinner of things I liked but were arranged in unusual ways, but some of his works were like five course dinners of things I mostly didn’t like, except for maybe the appetizer and dessert. Not to take away from the creativeness of it as much as the saturation of the effort.
You know what else is enjoyable about his stories? Utterly unpredictable. There will be no tropes here, or, if they are, they shall be used ironically and with abrupt changes in meaning to turn reader assumptions sideways. There’s so much that is fun, good, and oh yes! here: the Sea, the motif of the ink, the angels, the museum, the ramifications of a disappearing skill, the smallest ode to Star Trek, and the squiddity of it all. There is satisfying ending, even if it isn’t precisely the one expected. While I originally rated this slightly lower, it grew on me the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to read it again. This might be one worth adding to the library for the sheer inventiveness, the languageness of it. Yes, I think I will.
“We’ve been arguing about books,” said Marge.
“Best sort of argument,” said Billy. “What was the substance?”…
“Virginia Woolf versus Edward Lear…”
“I went for Lear,” said Leon.”Partly out of fidelity to the letter L. Partly because given the choice between nonsense and boojy wittering you blatantly have to choose nonsense.”