084 – Kraken by China Mieville

Kraken cover 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.
Good news everyone! I have found a book that is not shit!
So Kraken was…a very unique experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it. I’d never read a Mieville book before, but his was one of those names that gets thrown around a lot in discussions of “best genre fiction writers”, so when I saw Kraken on the shelf at Goodwill for fifty cents, I just grabbed it. It’s only a happy coincidence that it turned out to be one of his urban fantasies, but I’m glad that it was, because being familiar with the genre made Kraken that much more…impressive.

It’s like…I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy, and experience has told me that UF follows a certain template and relies on certain tropes, and even though there’s loads of “My World Has X Therefore it is Unique and Special”, let’s be real: it’s never that unique and special. There’s is SO MUCH sameface in this genre, if it were a comic it’d have been drawn by Greg Land.

Women of Marvel cover by Greg Land
Why does anyone hire this man?
So when a book calls itself urban fantasy and then creates a world with which I have basically no point of reference, it’s kind of an accomplishment. This book is genuinely unlike any urban fantasy I’ve ever read before.

I mean, granted, that could just be because I read shitty urban fantasy – and I’ve heard that it’s similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverworld (never read), so you know YMMV – but for me, the world China Mieville has created in Kraken is kind of a revelation. I love it. I love the weird way that the magic works, I love the ways in which it manifests itself, the variety in its practitioners, I love that it’s weird and unexpected and yet it somehow makes perfect fucking sense. I love how utterly irreverent and meta and modern a system it is. It’s like, yes, YES, if magic were invented today, this is it, this is how it would be. It wouldn’t be robes or wands or stones or cauldrons, it would be iPods and Star Trek and police proceedurals and televisions and origami.

It’s kind of difficult to explain the world without explaining a bunch of scenes from the book, and I’d rather not do that because half of the fun is the way different concepts are introduced, but basically, magic is based on belief. Like, for something to exist or have significance, it didn’t have to start out significant, it doesn’t even really have to BE significant. There just has to be people who believe that it is, and that belief is enough to give it power.

So, for example, the book establishes that there are bunches of cults out there, esoteric religions with unusual belief systems oriented around unusual things – for example, squids – and most if not all of these cults have scripture involving some sort of apocalypse. No cult is particularly more accurate, cosmologically, than another, but because people believe that they are, the world is constantly on the edge of apocalypse, because every religious cult has an apocalypse on the horizon, and every religion is right, in a way.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but that’s the basic gist as I understood it. Kraken‘s world being the way it is, there’s no one set way to use magic, no one unified methodology. It manifests through the story in dozens of ways, most of which I’ve never encountered in another book before. That’s fuckin’ rare, man, I mean, if you’ve played the “what superpower should this character have?” game, you know how hard it is to come up with a supernatural skill that hasn’t been used a million times already. Mieville manages to present everything in such a way that even blatant pop culture reference-based magic feels fresh and new and unique. It’s bizarre and random and wonderful, with very Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-esque sensibilities.

So yeah, the magical and world-building interludes kept me giggling and slapping my hands together like a delighted child, and for like the first 90% of the book, I was cool with pretty much everything else, too. Initially I’d been a little disappointed with the Average Dude Finds Out He’s Actually Super Special and Important premise. I mean, not that Billy’s that bad of a guy – he’s a decent hero. He’s not a jerk, he’s not a misogynistic fuck, he’s not too stupid to live, and in fact, he’s pretty damn reasonable for most of the book. Like, if you wanted a guy who reacted pretty much the way you would hope he would in this sort of situation, Billy would be that guy. But you know, god, who wants to read another male author wank fantasy about how boring little him is actually the most important person in existence? Not fuckin’ me, I’ll tell you that.

Happily, however, the narrative quickly decentralizes enough to where it’s not as much of an issue. It’s not about Billy’s super awesome road to being excellent man look how awesome he is hnnnngggg, so much as it is about this weird fucking stolen squid, what’s up with that event, so a fair amount of the book is spent with other characters doing equally-if-not-more interesting things.

I’ve found a new favorite character in my girl Collingswood, a police constable and multi-talented magic user who is allowed to be arrogant and powerful and bold and competent and foul-mouthed and clever and sloppy and reckless without being shamed or demonized or taken down a peg for any of it. Even better, she’s not sexualized or fetishized or stuck in the love-interest zone; she’s just allowed to be an awesome character, which holy fucking shit is rare for a woman in any genre book, much less a Special Average Dude narrative.

Likewise, I was happy to discover that most of the characters in Kraken are, you know, multi-faceted characters, as opposed to props or decorations. Dane, Wati, Paul, Marge, Saira, they all get the chance to be and do interesting, helpful things – hell, Marge even has her own mostly-separate subplot – and they all contribute. It’s not Billy, the Big Damn Hero, the Only One Who Can Save the Day.

…until it is.

Yeah, this book was coasting on like four stars for me until we hit the last few chapters, and then it sort of collapsed back in to Average Guy Saves the Day Even When Surrounded by People Ten Times More Qualified and Knowledgeable About It Than Him, and I’ll admit, that was a disappointment. I had been expecting Mieville to subvert that the way he’d been subverting the Chosen One nonsense surrounding Billy all along, but he ended up playing it pretty straight, which sort of ruined the whole effect for me.

It doesn’t help that the save is incredibly anti-climactic, which I mean, ok, you would kind of expect, given that the one hard and fast rule of magic in Kraken is belief, but still. Up to that point the book had done a fairly good job of making the random magical powers shit not feel like it was plot convenience magic, but that ending…that ending really did. And it’s super dissatisfying, after like a five-hundred-page slow build.

The second ending is a little better. It felt more complete. Hell, maybe that’s the point.

Ending aside, I did have some other difficulties with Kraken. Granted, it might have been me, but for a great deal of the beginning, the prose was very difficult to parse. I don’t know if it was because of all the British slang, or the in-world slang, or the fact that Mieville’s writing is above a seventh grade reading level and my brain has just gone rotten from all of the genre crap I read, but yeah, it’s not one of those I could read in a crowded room.

So yeah I mean, this was a pretty decent book. If it feels like there’s something missing, it’s because I don’t have a whole lot to say about the rest of it? The plot was compelling enough; not super predictable, and well put together, but mostly overshadowed by the magic stuff, and really the star here for me is the world that Mieville has created. I could probably sit here describing all of the funny meta bits with magic for like an hour, but you’d be better served by just reading the damn book. Just, you know, hunker down for the Big Damn Dude Hero moment.

two stars


3 Responses

  1. Aleph (@needsmorealeph)

    February 23, 2014 10:31 am, Reply

    In the Urban Fantasy That’s Not Paranormal Romance genre, you might also enjoy Paul Cornell’s London Falling, which is a really fun “cops learn about the magical underworld and solve a crime” story. Or, honestly, most of Miéville’s Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station [with attendant possible spoilery TWs near the end], The Scar and Iron Council) which are all fantasy in urban settings though they’re all the same big fantasy city so, YMMV there. Also his King Rat, which is pretty clearly a first novel and suffers a lot from the mantasy genre tropes but is pretty solid for all that.

    • Cyna Cyna

      February 24, 2014 4:31 am, Reply

      Ahh, is this Saucer Country/Demon Knights Paul Cornell bc I would probably be all over that. I do intend to read more Mieville in the future as well, I heard good things about Railsea, too?

      Also, Mantasy! A+.

  2. Austin H. Williams

    March 11, 2014 1:28 pm, Reply

    I definitely enjoyed Kraken, but for a Miéville outing, it felt weak. The characters were rich though, and the way he evokes London is spectacular and spot on, but it felt somehow pedestrian.

    I definitely second the recommendation for the Bas-Lag novels, and you might also want to check out his YA foray, Un-Lun-Dun, which (again) isn’t my favourite, but it still shows that even when Miéville isn’t at his best, he’s still better than most everybody else.

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