Billy is a curator at the Natural History Museum of London, a curator specializing in preserving mollusks, including the museum’s prize specimen, a giant squid. Impossibly, one day the squid and the tank that preserves it disappear. Slowly Billy finds himself immersed in an underworld of magical cult worship – he may be a prophet, but he’s also wanted by the most dangerous forces in London, and he just may be the key to ending an impending apocalypse.
First I must state just how far my geekiness goes – a few years ago I read The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) for fun and because I thought it would be cool (and it was) – probably the only nonfiction book I’ve read for pleasure in the last 15 years. So, to say that a fantasy book by an author like China Miéville about giant squid is a book I’m going to like is one hell of an understatement. And predictably, I loved Kraken.
Kraken is urban fantasy as it should be – dark, dangerous, and creative with both a modern and nostalgic feel, and lacking trite pop culture interpretations of mythological monsters covering up romance and wish fulfillment. Miéville slowly reveals the underbelly of magical London through religious and criminal fanatics, including a tattooed kingpin, squid-worshiping cult, rogue assassins, cults of all kinds and personalities, familiars on strike, and a duo of bad guys channeling the likes of Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar, Bond’s Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd , and even Pen & Teller. Miéville further peppers the text with homage to science fiction and fantasy books, film, and television and a wicked sense of dark humor largely lacking in his earlier works.
Kraken generally takes the form of an action-thriller with Billy and his allies frantically evading enemies while trying to avert the coming apocalypse, full of the usual action and plot-twists. Hell, it’s practically a classic ‘buddy movie’ complete with all the action, adventure, and sardonic one-liners (if a bit more clever than most). However, this is China Miéville and he simply can’t write without at least a bit of social context. Perhaps the most obvious is through Wati, a sort of magical union boss directing the familiars of London in a strike – this story line is complete with picket lines, strike breakers and a scab familiar squirrel. But more subtle a the discussion of religion and humanity. Religion, cultism, fanaticism, and the like all play a key role in Kraken and the inevitability of humans relying on such – perhaps not a condemnation, but a conversation bearing a mirror, a conversation occurring between the lines.
Kraken will likely prove to be the most buzzed/hyped SFF book of 2010 – how could it not, being a Miéville novel, anticipated for years, and coming at the heels of an unprecedented 3rd Arthur C. Clarke Award. I fear this will lead to the inevitable letdown even though this review will likely only add to the buzz. Kraken is a bit hard to get into – the style is dense and full of scientific, religious, psychological, and street language. It took me a while to adjust, and as a scientist, I was not challenged by the scientific lingo. I was also a bit annoyed by the ending, perhaps the one thing Miéville is regularly criticized about. Warning, the next couple of lines could be considered spoilers – there was an over-reliance on Darwin versus religion, it was a bit too cheeky with it’s ‘but it’s not over yet feel’ and while I like the openness, I fear for the push of a sequel. However, the overall strength of Kraken far outweighs its few weaknesses.
Kraken is the latest from the highly decorated China Miéville and a return to London. It’s a story of religious, cultist and criminal fanatics, it’s the story of a young man awakening to world around him, it’s a story of loss, it’s an apocalyptic, action-packed thriller, it’s magical, it’s squidpunk, it’s all a bad joke…and it’s simply an example of a master at work. Highly recommended. 8.5/10