Kraken is a strange and ambitious urban fantasy novel by the celebrated British author China Miéville, author of Perdido Street Station and The City & The City. It seems to combine the best (and worst) elements of H. P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and Franz Kafka.
Museum curator and Londoner Billy Harrow discovers that the Darwin Centre’s prize specimen Architeuthis dux—giant squid—has gone missing, tank and all, with nary a drop of evidence to propel conventional police work. Soon, Billy finds himself a fish out of water in a London he only thought he knew, a London filled with animal cults, otaku wizards, gruesome demonic henchmen, and organized magical familiars on strike from the status quo. Together with the redoubtable modern paladin Dane and a handful of London’s magic users, whose loyalties seem to shift with the tides, Billy seeks to find and protect the Architeuthis from warring magical factions who want it to star in at least one apocalypse.
Why modernity and not Victoriana?
One question I asked over and over again as I paged my way through this book was, Why does this story taken place in the modern day, rather than, say, the Victorian or Edwardian periods? The late 19th and early 20th Centuries combined to form an era of dramatic scientific advancement that also intermingled relatively freely with mysticism—as entirely appropriate a setting here as it was in H. P. Lovecraft’s day. Miéville has even splashed about in the steampunk pool, so it’s not as though he’s unfamiliar with the idea. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Miéville has given us something different in Kraken.
That’s not entirely bad; with Kraken, Miéville does a strong and credible job reconciling ancient prophecies and eldritch magic with all the trappings of modernity, akin to Neil Gaiman’s accomplishment with American Gods. In one memorable instance, a wizard crafts a real, working Star Trek phaser out of a collectible, and in another, a character uses “underground” Internet forums to search for her missing boyfriend. Text messaging and enchanted iPods are present and accounted for by name—aspects of daily life that many urban fantasy authors gloss over or conveniently forget.
Drowning in its own stylishness
As Kraken blends the old and the new, Miéville’s writing style does likewise. Throughout much of the book, Miéville’s wordplay is novel and inventive, lending Kraken a very modern, or even post-modern, feel that suits its setting. Miéville uses chatspeak and British slang to good effect—in the latter case, those outside the United Kingdom or unfamiliar with BBC programming may find themselves scratching their heads. Likewise, in a world where a tentacled god-beast could save or destroy the word, describing the Architeuthis as “an absurdly massive tentacled sepia event” gives the thing weight and majesty. Here, Miéville proves himself a true wordsmith who has not only mastered his language but tamed it for use towards his own ends. One gets the sense that he thoroughly enjoyed penning each and every word of this novel.
However, reading Kraken is not always smooth sailing. Despite the eloquence, Kraken‘s pacing is wildly uneven. Parts of the book genuinely plod, while others seemingly race excitedly towards nothing; in this, Miéville channels Kafka or the less endearing qualities of Lovecraft. Happily, these doldrums mostly trouble the first half; the second half clips along at a more even pace. While it is clear Miéville enjoyed his world-building, sections of the book could have been trimmed down to form a tighter, more compelling read.
Why should you read this book?
Fans of the urban fantasy genre who are tired of the usual vampires-and-werewolves set and fans of Neil Gaiman’s prose work may find themselves drinking deeply from Kraken. However, readers who focus on urban fantasy for the romance and sexiness often present in the subgenre will find themselves high and dry here. Worshipers at the various altars of H. P. Lovecraft fandom will almost certainly find satisfaction here, but they’ll have to wade through similarly murky narrative to get it.