Book Review: Kraken by China Mieville

London. It is a failure of my life thus far that I have never been to London. But the more I read about London, the less likely it is I will ever visit; nothing could ever live up to the London described by so many of my favorite authors. Though Paris is allegedly the city of Love, I get a much better vibe off of London: London is the Beloved City.

But its more than mere idol worship of the stones and streets and shoppes that really piques my interest in London. It is this shared consciousness and knowledge, this ethereal sense of underground. From Harry Potter to the Manual of Detection to the Borribles, there is unanimous agreement that London, perhaps a cultural Mecca for the mundanities of we plebes, plays a much larger and more significant role in the universe: that of a hub of the occult, the extraordinary, the unknown and the secret. To so many of my favorite authors, London is a city teeming with life at its surface, and teeming with secrets and mysteries down below.

Mieville’s newest novel, Kraken, does not so much capture the feel of this London Underground as it does attempt to define it, to place illusory borders around the limits of such an underground, ultimately proving that within the limits of the imagination there can be no borders to confine that which lives in secret below us all. To Mieville, this Underground is in reality the very heart of London itself; these are the movers and shakers, the power brokers and the people (and un-people) who are making things happen. While the rest of we plain folk go about our lives, unaware, these people of the occult wage wars and play jokes, all  the while hiding out in alleys hidden in 1965 or running shoppes unseen by folding the space within like origami until it can be seen from only one side.

These are the images of Mieville’s London. As usual, he crafts a world so unique and distinct, borrowing heavily from religious and occult sources while somehow piecing together some new and unique amalgamation of these very things. And while Kraken absolutely reeks of prior Mieville works and influences like Michael de Larrabeiti, this book ultimately allows Mieville to truly outdo Mieville. This is Mieville’s best work to date, completely healing the literary wounding of The City and the City while still allowing for a psychotropic ride through the crazier parts of surreality Mieville can imagine for us.

Did I mention I liked it?

The plot of Kraken follows a young squid scientist, Billy Harrow, as he delves into and becomes immersed within the hidden London. Our hero, like us, begins as an ignorant genius, showing off his curated giant squid exhibit at the National Museum of History. He is stunned when his prized bottled giant squid, the centerpiece of the museum’s popularity, goes suddenly missing. When the police start investigating Billy’s involvement in the heist, Billy’s is surprised when, in lieu of accusations, they instead offer him a job in their black ops occult division. Subsequently, and quite rapidly, Billy is kidnapped by a smoke-breathing ageless sadist and his miniature partner, rescued by a squirrel and a holy man from the Church of the Squid, forced to ingest hallucinogenic ink to force prophetic dreams, and then dropped suddenly and quite uncomfortably into the middle of a war between a talking tatoo and an ancient egyptian unionizing statue spirit.

And then things get weird.

And these things are only the beginning of this frenetic and wild ride through Mieville’s imagination and humor. Unlike prior Bas-Lag stories, here Mieville treats the world and his characters with some compassion and humor. That is not to say that these people are safe – between the sadistic villainy of the ever-pursuing Goss and Subby (who redefine morbid humor with their ever-creative and gruesome murders), the callous brutality of the Knuckleheads (men who quite literally have fists for heads), the unbelievably gross angel of memory, and the impending apocalypse of not one, but several religions, all centered on Billy … well, London isn’t the safest place on earth. Not at this End of Days.

But Mieville also flexes his creativity in Kraken. Perhaps the most interesting character in the book is Wato, the spirit of a clay servant built solely to serve an Egyptian Emperor ad infinitum through the afterlife, Wato rebelled against his servitude and started the first every worker’s revolution, in the eternal underworld. Finding success in unionization, Wato sought to return to the world of the living, traveling for many years forward from the Underworld to the real world, passing souls on their way to the afterlife, becoming a legend to the dead along the way. Now back on earth, Wato organizes a strike for the magical  familiars and servant spirits of earth. However, born into clay, Wato possesses no physical form and instead can only inhabit three dimensional statutes and other likenesses, leading to his possession of a Captain Kirk doll kept in the hero’s pocket.

This is not the only Star Trek joke.

Then there’s the Chaos Nazis, a group of “pure Nazis” who scoff at Hitler’s misinterpretation o thier true ideals: Judaism represents religious law and order, and is to be hated by the Chaos Nazis who seek complete and utter chaos – and are not afraid to commit terrifying acts of completely random violence to achieve this goal.

There’s a man who’s magic makes him seem so strikingly familiar, yet so utterly forgettable, allowing him the ability to pursue stealthy objectives in the wide open. Or an iPod magicked to feed on the music it plays, and allow the listener to skip forward in physical distances like fast forwarding a track, in order to facilitate escape from … well, you know …

The book is fast paced, unbelievably imaginative, compellingly suspenseful, and oft grin-inducing. For any fans of Mieville’s work (or of the aforementioned Manual of Detection), I cannot recommend Kraken any higher than to say this: I would forgo a return to New Crobuzon if Mieville would continue his tales of a hidden London, a place that I will never see and that I dearly hope exists not just in the minds of our creative thinkers, but in secret time-lost alleyways and origami-folded shoppes.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Kraken by China Mieville

  1. Sounds great. It also sounds a lot like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which I really enjoyed (I actually enjoyed it more than American Gods, which everyone else seems to like best of his non-graphic work).

    I’ll definitely have to give it a read. I love London, and I love London in fiction for pretty much the same reasons give above.

    I would encourage you to visit London though. I don’t actually think you’ll be disappointed, because though you almost certainly won’t encounter directly the hidden London of literature, when you’re there you can see little hints of it, and it’s easy to understand how it inspires this sort of work in so many authors.

  2. Neverwhere is my least favorite Gaiman book. I am the kind of person who finishes what he starts, especially with books, but I could not bring myself to finish Neverwhere. To each his own, I suppose.

    I do second the recommendation to visit London when you have a chance. And if you are looking for great books set in London, pick up Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It is sold as either a trilogy or an octology, depending on whether you buy hardcover or paperback. It is set all over Europe, but especially London, in the 1600s and 1700s. Many of the characters are historical figures—Newton, Leibniz, various royal types—but the book is not really historically accurate. It has some science fiction elements and some adventure elements. Best of all, when you are done reading the series you have either three or eight wonderful doorstops.

  3. I’ve been meaning to get going on the Baroque Cycle for a while now. It’s a bit intimidating to start given how long each volume is, but I think you’ve inspired me to go ahead and dive in whenever I finish the book I’m currently reading.

  4. Hi Princely One. How’s it going? Want to add your Kraken review to BestSFBooks? It should be easy, but I’m just getting started and there might be bugs! You can find instructions on our Kraken page:

    http://www.bestsfbooks.com/b/382/Kraken-China-Mieville
    (look under “Blog Posts” near the bottom)

    Want to try it? Happy to help if you get stuck. It’s early days for BestSFBooks, so feedback is definitely welcome. Thanks,

    Adam

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