Geek Lit: China Mieville’s Kraken

Kraken_(novel)_coverI’m not sure I have ever read a novel as outright weird as British author China Miéville’s latest, Kraken.

How weird is it?   Review and maybe some mild SPOILERS after the cut.

Miéville’s work opens with Billy Harrow.  He is an employee at London’s Darwin Centre, which is part of the British Museum of Natural History.  He’s giving his standard tour with a group headed towards the Centre’s prized possession, a preserved giant squid in a tank.

Things take a turn for the odd when the group gets to this final room and finds the squid missing, tank and all.  The police are called in, and one of the cops tells the assembled employees not to tell anyone the squid is missing.

For some reason, Billy then tells his best friend Leon, along with Leon’s new girlfriend Marginalia, Marge for short, that the squid is missing.

Billy’s life then gets very, very weird.  A female cop calls him out of the blue to berate him for telling people about the squid, and Billy is absolutely sure there’s a weird squirrel watching him through his apartment window.

Yes, it seems Billy has accidentally wandered into the realm of the mystical.  He learns that London is a prime breeding ground for magic, and there are many, many factions either looking for the squid, with plans for the squid, or intending harm for the squid.  It seems squids are revered as gods by a cult known as the Krakenists, and the security guard at the Centre that Billy never quite trusted was one of them.  Someone is planning to burn the body of the squid.  This could end the world.

To give a better idea of what Miéville has thrown into the mix here, let’s look at some of the various folks out looking for the squid, or end up becoming involved in Billy’s search for the squid, either as friend, foe, or neither.

  • The London PD’s magic division.
  • The Krakenists.
  • The Londonmancers, a group of neutral magicians who can read the future in the city’s guts.
  • The Tattoo, a ruthless crimelord who happens to be a living tattoo on some guy’s back.
  • Goss and Subby, centuries-old assassins employed by the Tattoo.  Goss is a man who seems to exhale smoke without actually smoking.  Subby is a silent boy who goes with him everywhere.  The two appear to be indestructible and have all kinds of weird skills.
  • Marge.
  • The sea, which has its own embassy.
  • Grisamentum, London’s most powerful magician, dead for the last few decades.
  • Wati, a spirit from ancient Egypt who can inhabit any carving of any figure.  He’s a union organizer for the city’s familiars.
  • The Angels of Memory.
  • And that’s not getting into the Chaos Nazis, the gunfarmers, the monsterherders, spectral pigs, ghost cops, and a host of other odd groups that seem to pop up all over the place.

Miéville actually intended the book as a dark comedy.  It does work that way if you consider that no matter how weird things get, the characters take everything completely seriously.  This is a book where a man can walk into most places because he gives off an aura of always being vaguely familiar to people, such that they assume the guy belongs wherever he is but anyone encountering him can’t quite remember his name.  Everything is just so darn weird, and Billy never stops to think how weird it is.

Credit to the author, too, for somehow getting all these crazy plotlines to somehow connect to each other in the end.  By the time the book is finished, all the different factions, Billy, Marge, and the squid have all been dealt with to a fairly satisfying degree.

My one complaint was the dialogue.  It always read as stilted and odd.  I don’t know how much of it was Miéville writing in various forms of London slang I just don’t recognize, or if it was a stylistic thing, but I was occasionally confused about what people were talking about.  Plus, all things being equal, I wish the focus was more on the cops than on generic hero Billy.  I came for the weird factions, stayed for the twisty-turny plots, but ultimately the dialogue threw me for a loop here and there and prevented me from enjoying the book as much as I wanted to.  It got better over time, perhaps as I came to understand it through practice, but I’m still going to give this one eight out of ten magic phasers.

Yeah, it turns out some magicians are big on Star Trek.

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