Kraken by China Miéville (2010) – Book Review
Kraken (2010) is everything one might expect from celebrated English fantasy writer, China Miéville. The plot is bizarre, the fantasy exceptionally imaginative. Miéville’s prose is brilliant and wildly unique, the ideas raised in the novel reach far beyond the edges of the story. Kraken is an exceptional read. I can’t say, however that I enjoyed reading it.
China Miéville is perhaps best known for his Bas Lag series of novels, of which the incredible Perdido Street Station is the first. On the enormous strengths of Perdido Street Station, I was eager to devour every word Miéville had written before and after. As such, I came to Kraken with considerably high expectations. On some level they were met.
On the surface, Kraken is an adventurous romp about the theft of a giant squid specimen from London’s Natural History Museum, the cult that reveres it as a god, and all the good guys and the bad guys who are trying to recover the stolen squid and stop the world from ending in a fiery apocalyptic show down in the meantime. Beneath that as a starting plot the reader is drawn into the utterly bizarre world of occult London where abandoned gods lurk in every corner; where a whole world of magic users bend and twist the city; where ruthless and utterly vile gang leaders are trapped as a sentient tattoo on a guy’s back, or they turn themselves into ink; the animal familiars are on a union strike organised by the disembodied spirit of an Egyptian shabti. And that’s just the beginning.
The novel jumps around into a dozen different worlds, with a host of different characters in each. That, for me was the turn off. There is simply far too much happening in this novel, and since everything that is happening is so entirely out of this world, combined also with Miéville’s flourishing writing style, I found Kraken at times needlessly difficult to follow. Perhaps that was the intention. Miéville holds all the cards of this story close to his chest until the very end. Things happen and then are explained. It is definitely a way to continue the momentum of the reading experience, but I tend to find that momentum is carried a lot easier when I’m not struggling to keep up with what’s going on.
Kraken is an examination of religion and religious devotion. This is a world of used up and abandoned gods, or utterly strange ones like giant squids, and a fervour of followers that borders on the maniacal. Kraken treats these utterly ridiculous beliefs with a seriousness that gives the book a tongue in cheek dark humour tone. There isn’t a sense though that it’s making fun of religion or believers. Kraken did reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with its gods that are no longer necessary and have been replaced by newer idols of worship. These ideas of religion and belief are the strongest, and the most important of the many themes the book plays with. Perhaps it would have been a more enjoyable read had the focus remained more squarely attached to this idea and not flitted off around on seemingly every thought that came into the author’s head. I would have really liked to seem more of Vardy, the former believer who couldn’t reject the truth of science, the unreality of religion but still craved for that sense of peace that came through his former faith. This is a really interesting character trait and it’s a shame that he was on the edges of the plot the whole time, especially given he ended up being the crucial element to the resolution. This was nothing but frustrating.
Kraken is a book with so many really interesting characters who all struggling for the reader’s attention. As such no character is given the time and energy that he or she deserves. I didn’t really mind when Dane died because I didn’t really get to know him all that well. I knew he was a devoted Krakenist, fond of his Grandfather, but that’s all I was given. The recurring characters of Goss and Subby, these most maniacal and diabolical of bad guys were great. Their menace, as an ever present shadow lurking at the edges was something that did work well as an underdeveloped characterisation. I would have liked to have got to know Collingswood a lot more too. Urban fantasy definitely lacks in respectable female characters and she was a breath of fresh air in a genre overpopulated by leather clad tough chicks with strangely awesome martial arts skills.
Kraken also succeeds as a great piece of urban fantasy in that it firmly establishes this magical world as a part of our real world. Pop culture references abound, most readily in the Star Trek references. We have working phasers and a working transporter – ok, so the transporter might effectively kill whoever uses it reproducing a strange type of living dead clone (don’t think zombies, it’s something much different). Much contemporary urban fantasy is written in insular worlds. Kraken is the complete opposite, blending real ancient history, myth and modern culture into a world that is, despite all of its utterly mesmerising fantasy elements, completely believable.
Overall, there’s really nothing bad in Kraken, it’s all just too much of a good thing. For it’s weaknesses, this is still China Miéville. The man can do what he likes and I’ll still respect it as visionary. And Kraken is indeed visionary. Despite what I didn’t like about it, which might be put down to stylistic preferences on my part, the strengths of the novel prove once again why Miéville is one of the most important voices we have in contemporary fiction.
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