Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Kraken by China Miéville

Something is happening in London – in its skin, in its soul, in the nooks and crannies of its many secret subsections. Something is … coming. And even the most intuitive, clued-in ‘knackers’ don’t know what it is… except that it involves the end of everything.

Museum curator Billy Harrow is also unaware of the impending apocalypse until his prize specimen, the Architeuthis (or Kraken, or giant squid) totally vanishes from its display room (giant specimen jar and all). After a visit from a bizarre and shady division of the Metropolitan Police – the FSRC (Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes unit) – he is flung into the clutches of a London he has never seen before; filled with stone-spirits and murderous talking tattoos and ocean-worshippers and Londonmancers. When Billy discovers that the pickled Architeuthis can (and likely will) destroy the world, his life becomes a race against the approaching disaster in which all parties want the same thing but everyone is pulling in different directions to get it.

Miéville’s famed and acclaimed imagination shakes its tail feathers cheekily throughout Kraken – here he gives us all the barmy-ness and creative ingenuity we have come to love about his books, but with a Pratchett-esque playful irony and a plethora of subculture references we’ve not seen from him before. When I met him just after the release of Kraken, he told me that “it’s a comedy. It’s a toilet book – you should read it on the toilet.” I probably just blushed and blathered like I normally do in his presence, but I thought of that remark often later when I read the book (and no, not because I read it on the toilet!)

All right, I’m going to say it: I don’t think this is his best work. I think this is a flirt with genre and with subculture; perhaps a way to lighten the mood a little for him as so many of his novels deal with dark political subjects or the mass corruption of morals, and are genre-defining in and of themselves. Kraken - whilst being funny and witty and having a fantastic array of characters, themes and scenescapes - doesn’t have the pace or clarity of vision that shines so brilliantly through the bizarre realms of his other books. It is overflowing with metaphor, which I sometimes found tedious because they seemed to be present for nothing other than to be ironic or self-parodying. The characters are not very well-realised, and sometimes it seems as though their actions occur for no reason other than plot convenience. Maybe my perception wasn't nuanced enough to "get it" but I know there are other Miéville fans out there who felt the same way.

Kraken is good fun, but requires dedication. As a huge fangirl it was easy for me to still love this book for what it was, but if you’re not a patient reader the first 150 pages or so might get you down. I really enjoyed the ‘magical’ London, the monsters and mythology, the nudges and winks sprinkled throughout for us nerdy elite to giggle knowingly at... but I do think if you want to make a light-hearted laugh-a-thon it might be done better at a few hundred pages less. Even so, sections of it are riveting and utterly entertaining - it is really hard for me to be in any way critical in NORMAL LIFE, let alone of one of my favourite writers of all time. China, I still love you!

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