“Why wouldn’t the gods of the world be giant squid? What better beast? It wouldn’t take much to imagine those tentacles closing around the world, now would it?”
China Miéville’s Kraken is kind of the ultimate in beach reading, thematically at least. I’ve been a fan since his editor at Tor thrust a copy of King Rat in my hands and my appreciation for the scope of his vision has only grown with each subsequent release, including Perdido Street Station, The Scar (my favorite of the Bas-Lag novels), and 2009’s Arthur C. Clarke Award—winning, mind-bending mystery The City & The City. Haunting and cerebral, the noir trappings of that novel were a stylistic departure from Miéville’s trademark baroque voice. Kraken is no less baroque or cerebral, but it’s also a world of silly, squiddy fun.
Mining some more mystery tropes, Kraken begins with the impossible disappearance of a nine-meter-long preserved giant squid and its tank from London’s Natural History Museum. Curator Billy Harrow discovers the theft, and soon enough an improbable corpse, and is thrown into a frightening underworld of paranormal detectives, warring cults, dark magic, and impending apocalypse. A very classic fish-out-of-water tale, pun intended.
Kraken had me right from the start. I wanted to bypass work and take the train to the American Museum of Natural History and curl up with this book in the cool shadows of the Hall of Marine Life. Billy is very likable. Maybe it’s because he would rather spend his summer days among dusty bottles of specimens, too.
Kraken has an eyeball kick on practically every page, but this time what really stood out were the characters. I really feared for the safety of the good guys. Billy is geeky and in way over his head. Dane, his ally and tour guide through the dangerous back alleys of magical London, is strong and smart and admirable in his devotion to The Church of God Kraken. And then there’s Wati, an ancient Egyptian entity who was the first slave to strike in the afterlife (a superb chapter within the story) and is currently the union leader for picketing familiars. I loved the subplot of the contract dispute and the havoc it wreaked on working sorcerers. Wati only gets better as the pages progress and the spirit moves through the city by jumping into increasingly bizarre objects.
The “bad” guys here are some of the creepiest I’ve ever come across. There’s the crime boss Tattoo, who is exactly what his name implies, and his workshop of tortured goons. And then there’s the memorable entrance of killers-for-hire Goss and Subby, who are on a mission to find Billy and cause a ton of havoc. They are my favorite Brit-lit henchmen duo since Croup and Vandemar of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere fame.
Set in modern-day London, Kraken is a drastic change of scenery from the otherworldly novels that preceded it. And there’s lots of fun to be had with pop culture references. A GG Allin (Google at your own extreme risk) tattoo provides a clue to a murder investigation. An enchanted iPod sings Amy Winehouse and N.W.A. as talismans. Star Trek’s teleportation device gets some serious examination in the latter half of the book, as does a Captain Kirk action figure. The playfulness of the language makes Kraken extremely fun.
But this isn’t the whimsical secret London of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. This time the hapless nerd must navigate a city filled with dark secrets and not one, but two approaching apocalypses. And this is where Kraken lost me. For a 500-plus page tome, the novel moves swiftly but fatigue sets in by the final act. Kraken has everything: a ton of cool characters, many laughs, fantastic imagery, a mystery, challenging ideas about religious belief and free will, and a giant freaking squid. And that’s the problem. Kraken has too much going on and in the end, the shaggy god story grows and grows into a shambling Lovecraftian beast, but there isn’t a punchline. The tale just deflates.
While Kraken may not be Miéville’s best novel, it is an exuberant treat for long-time fans (which of course means Miéville-haters will find lots of ammo here.) Devotees of the author get to see an artist take a bit of a creative breather and just go for something balls-out fun. And that diversion—is it insulting to call the culmination of months of work a diversion?—pays off handsomely when the novel that follows it is Embassytown, one of Miéville’s tightest.
Kraken is available wherever books are sold.
Theresa DeLucci is not a G.G. Allin fan, per se, but is too familiar with his work. She covers True Blood, Game of Thrones, and is also an avid gamer. She has also covered tech and TV for Geektress.com and Action Flick Chick. Follower her on Twitter @tdelucci