Review of Kraken by China Miéville
by China Miéville
Rest assured, this is a China Miéville book. I was a little worried when I first started reading, because everything made sense. The plot and narrative seemed very straightforward, and I wasn’t confused. His description, though sometimes inventive, resided well within the realm of comprehensible. In short, this didn’t immediately blow my mind the way Miéville’s prose often does. There are mind-blowing things that happen later on, but Kraken is remarkably accessible. (“Remarkably accessible”—how’s that for a blurb?)
It’s easy to explain the gist of the story: Billy Harrow is a curator at the Darwin Centre (a real place), an expert on the giant squid (also a real thing). On his latest tour, he walks into the room on which the centre’s giant squid specimen is displayed … only to find it missing, stolen. This plunges Billy into a surreal experience involving squid cultists, unionized familiars, and living tattoos. Billy is on a race against time to find the squid—or kraken—before whoever stole it uses it to start an apocalypse. Because that would be a downer.
Actually, in describing the plot of this book to a friend, I came to the startling realization that it all sounds an awful lot like a Dan Brown thriller. The literature snob within me caught wind of this and reared his head: “China Miéville? Writing a Dan Brownesque novel? Preposterous!” Truly, there are some striking similarities. However, Miéville differs from Brown in a few key points: he isn’t claiming this is all fact, covered up by some shadowy organization. The cults and conspiracy theorists in this book are just that. And he’s embracing the magic of London, in the vein of many other fantasy authors who have set their books in that city, picking up on the multi-faceted, multicultural history and the many rich layers of substance that makes London what it is.
Kraken is an enjoyable book. Billy makes a good hapless protagonist, thrust into a world he didn’t know existed the night before. At first he rides with the police’s underfunded, underappreciated division that handles cult-related zaniness. Soon enough he finds himself on the run along with an ex–squid-cult member, Dane Parnell, trying to get to the bottom of the kraken’s kidnapping. Unfortunately, Miéville muddies the plot significantly enough that it takes far too long for them to solve the mystery. Every few chapters, just when I thought we would make a big break, there would be a new twist or new piece of information.
It’s not that I want my mystery to be formulaic, predictable, or even straightforward. But it’s fiction, and fiction needs some boundaries and guidelines. I am awful at guessing whodunit in Agatha Christie’s works, but I still enjoy them because she sets careful parameters and lays out the clues like a market merchant setting out their wares. I know it’s one of several possible people, as opposed to a random character whom we don’t meet until a few chapters before they are revealed as the criminal
In this way, it would have been nice if Miéville had gone to the trouble of immersing us in his London far more intensively and with more variation earlier in the book. Billy doesn’t get out much, doesn’t stretch his legs. Aside from some mild name-dropping (in the case of Grisamenthum), Miéville doesn’t spend much time introducing the major players and the history of this aspect to the city. I realize that, for Billy, this is all supposed to be unsettling. But I feel like there could have been some alternative ways to structure the story that would leave us better prepared for confronting the mystery of the kraken.
This is the mind-blowing part, the most Miévillian of all the book, that kraken and its significance. There is a squid cult. There’s a disembodied villain. There’s a man out for revenge. And all along, Billy and another neophyte to this world, the innocent Marge, can’t quite believe what they are seeing or hearing. It’s all too incredible for them. How could this world exist just beneath the surface of everyday experience? In particular, I love how Marge uses the Web, particularly forums, to navigate this world and educate herself about it. It’s such a topical, contemporary way to learn the lore and pick up those darker arts, and Miéville doesn’t make a big deal about it.
Kraken is trying to be clever and philosophical, but it doesn’t take off for me. It sits there, prodding me with the odd teaser, while remaining annoyingly mundane for a Miéville book. It’s not that it just doesn’t feel odd enough (there is that) … it doesn’t have the same twisted depths of personal injustice. Billy loses his best friend, Leon (and how much of a loss is that?). But, barring the various issues I’ve had with Miéville’s characterization in the past, he has always delivered the most fascinating, intricate, and damaged personalities. The closest we get to that in this book is Tattoo, and maybe his rival, Grisamenthum. But they don’t come close to Miéville’s other creations.
Genuinely interesting and somewhat good, Kraken doesn’t rate highly against the other Miéville books I’ve read. I don’t recommend it as a starting place—because it doesn’t really resemble his other work—and I wouldn’t rush out it buy it unless you’re intent on completing the Miéville oeuvre. Or, you know, you like squid.