Kraken by China Mievile

Stephen Aryan

Well-Known Member
Nov 27, 2008
Spoiler free review.

I’m in a bit of an unusual, and perhaps lucky situation, because Kraken is only the second China Miéville novel I’ve ever read. The first was The City & The City. I knew it was a departure from his normal style, so I had no preconceptions of what to expect and measured it only against other crime novels. With Kraken, I pretty much went in cold. I’ve been aware of Miéville for a couple of years, and had a rough approximation of his style, but just hadn’t got around to reading anything by him. So this was a whole new world to me.

The short pitch is that a giant squid is stolen from the Natural History Museum, which leads its curator, Billy Harrow, to delve into a weird and scary version of London, one he’s never seen before, in an attempt to recover it. The sheer impossibility of moving something so big in a giant tank of preservative fluid without anybody noticing, immediately raised a lot of questions in my mind. Then I thought about Miéville, and what I knew about his stories, and I realised the answer would not be simple or traditional.

This is not a crime thriller in the normal sense, even though part of the story involves the recovery of a lost icon and god, the squid, making it a long way from The City & The City. Labelling Kraken as a particular genre is pointless in some ways - dark urban fantasy, or horrific thriller don’t really cover it. Weird fiction is probably the best label because it’s generic enough to cover almost anything. The book is very disturbing in some places, feels like a police procedural in others, and made me think of Lovecraft at some points, but it also made me laugh out loud a few times because it is very witty and culturally aware. Bill Harrow gets into all kinds of trouble and the villains are never what you would expect, in the way they look or behave.

Creating realistic characters, in amidst the insanity of the city and the many cults, factions, gangs, groups and faiths we encounter, is a definite strength of Miéville. People react realistically, they cry, complain, whine, moan and do all the things you would do when confronted with the insane and the impossible. But denial only works for so long, and you either face up to what is really happening, or hide in a corner and wait for it to be over. Billy and another character find themselves in this situation and they rise to the challenge in a way that is never jarring and never made me want to throw the book across the room. Billy doesn’t jump from museum worker to high-kicking kung-fu fighter and magician in five minutes, but the longer he spends in that other world that most people never see, mixing with the weird and the wonderful, the more he picks up and gradually there is a blossoming of his character over a period of time into someone new.

The sheer level of inventiveness in Kraken is quite astonishing and at some points in the story there is so much it starts to choke the plot, but it never stops it from being interesting. There are lots of different faiths introduced in this book, new religions with their own set of beliefs, rituals and language, and each has a very distinctive way of looking at the world. Surprisingly, if you ignore some extremes like the insane Chaos Nazis, there are some new belief systems in the book that make more sense to me, and are more appealing, than current worldwide faiths followed by millions. Some of them are organic, and you can see how they could have developed over time, whilst others are broken pieces of old faiths sewn together into something new and horrific, more terrifying in fact than the rambling of a mentally unstable American writer of fiction. For example.

To me this demonstrates not only Miéville’s incredible awareness of religion and its impact on society, but also his remarkable ability to understand the nature of the human heart. People need comfort, they need to belong to something bigger and feel connected, and while technology and the internet can bring people together with others of a similar mindset where normally it wouldn’t be possible, religion and a formalised structured belief system can be a transcendent experience like no other. Without spoiling anything, I saw characters unashamedly enveloped by their faith, letting it guide them, shore them up in dark places and give them strength when they thought it was the end and they couldn’t go on. I didn’t expect the book to have a spiritual message, and perhaps it doesn’t for other people, but for me it merely reinforced my notion that faith is a very personal thing, it is powerful, and belief can be a positive force in a person’s life.

The other creative element I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that runs throughout the book, and again without spoiling anything about the plot, is magic. This book is saturated by it, with notions of urban magicians able to tap into distinct energies, create unique mystical snouts and bloodhounds, and bend the rules of nature to their will. There again, there is a logical rhythm and functional set of rules that underlies this fantastical principle, so that no one can just wave a hand and kill all of their enemies in an instant. There might be a way to do something like that, but the physical and mental cost to the magician would likely be devastating, so they would never attempt it. It also comes down to energy and creating a balance with nature and the environment. I was very glad to see that magic is never used as a mcguffin or skeleton-key to get the characters out of impossible situations. It is a functional tool or skill set some people possess to assist them, but it never solves their problems completely.

At its core Kraken is about the city of London itself - its history, its culture and the people - as much as the quest to find what was stolen. This could be me projecting, but I think there is a lot of love in the story for London because it is a city like no other in the world. It has a rich and layered history. Its diverse cultural heritage and ever changing landscape has created a city that is incredibly dense. Although some elements of the London in the story are fictional, I still felt that the city was tolerant and accepting, where people could believe whatever they wanted to, no matter how outlandish, and that there was room for them. For all the unpleasant events in the story, it painted London itself in a very positive light.

It’s not a major spoiler to say that at some point the stolen squid turns up, but that’s not the end of the story because it is only a piece of the puzzle. As well as sometimes being a mystery, the story is also a fantasy quest for the truth to find out the Who and the Why. But our plucky heroes are not sword wielding warriors, but a curator and a member of the Krakenist cult. As you can see by all of the above, Miéville has to keep a lot of plates spinning in this story, and the fact that he does so with aplomb and great delight, whilst weaving his story, is a testament to his remarkable skill as a writer. His sheer creative brilliance is utterly unmatched and after reading this book I am most definitely a fan.

This book is very culturally aware, layered with geek references and wry comments on modern society. It’s funny, disturbing, incredible inventive and is a meaty read and not something you can look at with only one eye on the page. There is a lot going on and I suspect on re-reading it I would pick up a lot of details, and plot clues, I missed the first time around. It shows you a version of London you’ve never seen before, one rich in magic, religion and occult history that most people don’t even know about. It’s engaging, clever and funny throughout and it also demonstrated to me that Miéville is in a totally different class to most other writers. Kraken is an exceptional and exciting piece of weird fiction.

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