Yes – I read books over the long weekend.
Many of the reviews I’ve put up have had a slight tinge of disappointment. I’ve found the novels to not quite be as good as previous books by the same author. But today we have Kraken, by China Mielville. This may be my favorite book that he has written. Yay!
Billy Harrow is a curator at the Museum of Natural History in London. Specifically in the Darwin institute where they preserve specimens going all the way back to some of Charles Darwin’s original studies. But the centrepiece at the museum is the 8 meter long giant squid, bottled and preserved. At least until the end of the first chapter when the squid vanishes. The police are called and it seems to be a typical locked door mystery. The only leads are a missing security guard and a visitor on the final tour who wore a strange lapel pin.
But slowly things begin to get weird. A new group of police take over the case and their methods and behaviors are off. Their questions make little sense to Billy and before long he is offered a job as a special consultant on their squad. Or perhaps he is being extorted by the police to take it – their manner is vaguely threatening more than reassuring. The police secure his house and leave him to ponder for the night. Billy invites a friend over to discuss and the friend brings a package up from the mail slot downstairs. The package opens to reveal something truly terrifying.
I don’t want to summarize further. This was the turn in the tale. Up until now things were slightly odd at times. Billy was in over his head, but he didn’t know why or how and what any of it had to do with the missing giant squid. At this point he is plunged much deeper into the mystery and he encounters another London – the same London really – but an aspect of knacks, ends and villains he had never surmised existed.
Billy like many others dreams of an end in fire with a Kraken rising from the deep. An end to what? Maybe everything. The end of all ends. The new London he is in has cults for each of those ends including the Kraken end, but this doesn’t seem to be the end they were waiting for.
Does the last paragraph sound weird? If so, good! I’ve only hinted at the strangeness within Kraken.
Kraken in many ways is a version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Something goes wrong and the main character finds him self in London, but one inhabited by magic and strange customs. There are even a pair of villains, Goss and Subby that are either a direct shout out to Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar or both authors have a common referent that I don’t. But, Neverwhere might be Gaiman’s least novel and Kraken is Mielville at his height.
The difference is that Mielville is a New Weird author. New Weird is a small realm of fantasy that is poorly defined. The best definition might be ‘like the book that China Mielville writes’. But another might be fantasy that doesn’t use Tolkien, fairy tales or mythology as its inspiration. Neverwhere is built around a common, in fantasy, quest structure. The protagonist learns of his world as he quests through it. The locations in London are as important as the people. Mielville does it differently. The basis of the story is a mystery. And while London itself is important as a setting there isn’t so much the sense of moving through London. Instead it is the ideas and the characters that are central.
This is the third book in a row that Mielville has written about bifurcated cities. Un-Lun-Dun, The City & the City and now Kraken. It is also the second in a row built around a mystery. In this case though he is even playful with the term mystery as it means not only a whodunnit, but also things which cannot be known. A pun present in the work that is never made explicit except by the work itself. Un-Lun-dun was a great story about turning expectations on their head. The City & the City was a tale about wedding a mystery and investigation into a fantasy. But Kraken most resembles Mielville’s earliest works set in Bas-Lag. A riot of invention and immersion into something that is completely different.
Kraken is also just plain fun. There are a few laugh out loud moments in the book. The mystery is played fairly, but has enough twist and turns to be a Dashiel Hammet novel. Every piece of knowledge asks a new question and pulls Billy in deeper.
Finally the characters are enticing and interesting. Oddly, no one you’d want to invite over for a beer, but Marge, Dale, Collingswood, Fitch, Saira, Goss, Subby, Wati and even the Tattoo are all great. Portrayed with their own goals and personalities the plot is driven by their actions. London is a battleground (sometimes literally) on which this end is being enacted by these people. Marge may be my favorite simply because she slowly grows on you. At first she seems to be only a secondary, flat character, but the story draws her out and she begins to make choices.
I’m not sure that Mielville is for everyone. The City & the City and Un-Lun-Dun are both a bit easier to approach than Kraken. But Kraken is a nice middle point before leaping back into his earliest novels of Bas-Lag. (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council – I haven’t read his very first book King Rat). I will recommend it to anyone who wants a little bit of something completely different in their fantasy.