Don’t let the tentacles fool you — yes, China Miéville’s Kraken takes as its starting point a tentacular god of the deep reminiscent of the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, but then Miéville adds to it the baroque psychogeographies of Moore and Moorcock, the whimsy of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and American Gods, the surreal imagery of a Tim Powers novel, and a dizzying barrage of geeky pop culture references, not to mention what is probably the best use of a James T. Kirk action figure ever.
On the whole — and this is something which I never thought I would find myself saying about a China Miéville novel — this is an incredibly fun read. Also, at five hundred pages, it makes a pretty good beach book (although probably not if you are the nervous over-imaginative sort as, see above, ominous giant squid god).
The protagonist of Kraken is Billy Harrow, a museum curator at the Darwin Center in London. Billy is the sort of naive, perpetually-baffled male character more typically found in a Neil Gaiman novel, and thus, when a preserved giant squid (the star exhibit of Billy’s museum tour) suddenly disappears from the museum, Billy is rapidly overwhelmed by the world of magical crime into which he is drawn. Billy’s personal and professional problems are soon forgotten when he finds out that both he and the giant squid are pawns in a magical war that is rapidly accelerating toward an apocalypse . . . or two (what is the plural of ‘apocalypse’?).
The London of Kraken is detailed and unique without being bogged down in long prosy descriptions, and the characters which populate this gritty, litter-strewn London deliver lively dialogue which is often laugh-out-loud funny. It also possesses a pair of villains, Goss and Subby, who make Neil Gaiman’s Mssrs. Kroup and Vandemar look downright avuncular.
If you haven’t experienced the linguistic and narrative pyrotechnics of Miéville’s work before, Kraken offers an enjoyable introduction to Miéville’s style, particularly his delightful use of language and his often bizarre characters. There is no shortage of unexpected plot twists, although some readers may suspect who the actual villain is from pretty early in the book). However, those readers who are fans of Miéville’s gritty, dark, and often despair-ridden earlier works may find this novel somewhat more frivolous. It’s definitely less idea-driven than many of Miéville’s previous works.
Which leads me to my one criticism of Kraken.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, there emerges from within the story a tension between Billy, a scientist whose professional and personal focus is the cataloguing of information and the preserving of physical specimens in a museum which focuses on Darwin and his idea of evolution, and the almost infinite variety of religious believers and magic users whom he meets while he attempts to discover the mystery of the missing squid. In particular, Billy spends most of the novel with a soldier from the squid cult who repeatedly saves Billy’s life. There is a seeming contradiction between Billy’s view of the giant squid as a scientific specimen and his companion’s reverence of the object as a religious presence. Yet, no conversation regarding their conflicting belief systems ever occurs between the two characters, although Miéville’s story seems, to me at least, to often hover on the brink of having this discussion.
This unexpressed tension between the worldviews of science and magic not only has implications for the main character of Billy, who never expresses any qualms about how his experiences with magic affect his own scientific belief system, but also problematizes the ending of the novel, which suggests a world which operates at least as much upon magical forces as scientific principles. No matter how intimately entangled in this magic his own existence becomes, Billy seems unaffected by this disruption to his worldview and barely pauses for a moment of introspection.
And perhaps that avoidance of the big issue is just as well, because the argument of evolution versus religious faith is irrelevant to most of the other characters. My own favorite characters were those individuals who were neither scientists nor religious believers, people who just kept trying to do what they believed to be right, even when things seemed hopeless. Again, there seemed to hover the possibility that there would be some exploration of how most people stumble along, trying to stick to their personal sense of moral order, even as they remain uncertain about the existence of a god or the certainty that there will be any reward for their struggle.