We’ve been chomping at the bit to snag a copy of China Mieville’s Kraken for so long. We begged for a domestic ARC, but to no avail (we’re relative book reviewing newbies, completely understandable.) So, we decided to fire up our every useful UK book buying account and snagged a Brit copy for review.
With a book like Kraken, you really don’t know where to start when reviewing it. Can’t get too deep into the plot for fear of spoilers. Can’t dwell on the metaphysical minutia, because that’s magical somnus powder to a casual reader.
That being said, we’ll just jump right in and declare this was a damn good book! Kraken is literary pointillism, a million little dots of detail, characters and themes that create a marvelous and bewildering universe.
Smartly, Kraken starts of with the drone of normality. The din of dull reality. We’re introduced to Darwin Centre curator Billy Harrow who Mieville perfectly captures in one line “..he would, DiCaprio-like, simply become like an increasingly wizened child.” Harrow, the everyman, is thrust into an impossible situation when the museum’s prized exhibit, the giant squid Architeuthis, vanishes. The specimens collected during Charles Darwin’s Galapagos journeys are left untouched. But this giant squid completely and entirely vanishes.
Unsuccessfully recruited to join the hunt for the squid’s captors, Harrow is harrowingly introduced to a magical world of London unknown to him. The scene in which everything changes for Harrow starts off, like the book’s intro, normal. But literally unfolds in a way that has you grip the page and declare, ‘Did I just read that right?’
There are the Krakenists, Londonmancers, a malevolent Tattoo, a dizzying number of household gods, magical gangs, talismans, omnipotent elements, everything but a warlockian kitchen sink (but even that is not far off.)
If there is a single criticism it is that Mieville dives fast and deep into this occult short-hand. One could use a Kraken-occult-opedia to keep up. That causes the staccato style of his writing to hiccup occasionally as we’re left trying to understand the omnipresent magic that everyone but Harrow and the reader seem to know about. But again, that is a small beef.
Kraken has authorial splashes reminiscent of Bradbury, Gaiman, Pullman, Moorcock and Lovecraft. The novel is also very British, with dozens of local or national references that are sure to go over the heads of some readers on this side of the pond.
The London crime fighters trying to chase down the kraken-napped in this tale are odd and elite, they are the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit, riffing off like a magical version of the BBCs Waking the Dead team. Our favorite character from Kraken wasn’t Harrow, but a member of the occult ‘Old Bill’ team, wise-cracking, chain smoking female Police Constable Collingswood. We’d like to see more of this sassy lass.
As we read Kraken, a work popped into our heads, a purportedly non-fiction travel work, Occult London. The book, penned by Merlin Coverley provided us a nice literary dipping sauce to compliment the main cephalopod dish.
What makes Kraken so interesting is that it is not just one book. It’s not a straight up urban fantasy gone amuck. To the contrary, we race around with cops and occult criminals searching for Harrow, who is also searching for the Kraken, while being assaulted and waylaid at every fantastical turn. Mieville invests proportionally in each little genre, fantasy throughout with dashes of detective, horror and dark comedic tales. Kraken never fills you up with these sub-genres, but appropriately whets your appetite.
Also, Mieville’s creativity investing time in new and odd religions screamed of Roman antiquity in the modern age. We have every manner of faith, god and deity floating around the near-apocalyptic age, but no one bird rules the roost. We imagine this is what ancient Rome was like, a god here a god there, soldiers, merchants and sailors each having their own trinket or talisman. It was practical, but not world weighing serious.
And yet the search for the deity squid and the secrets it may hold are deadly serious for Harrow and the rest of the Kraken inhabitants.
Kraken’s pay off is near perfection because Mieville expertly foreshadows our climax while engaging in brilliant literary slight of hand until the last possible moment.
Kraken is an occult shell game, bursting with trippy slang and pop-culture references and a straight line plot that takes dozens of tentacle like twists to climax.
Kraken by China Mieville (drops June 29th here in the States) was purchased by Boston Book Bums.