Kraken: An Anatomy
Reviewed by Jason Fisher
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:9 (#350) in September 2011.]
I have a confession to make. I have been avoiding China Miéville. I’ve been giving his books a wide berth for years, quite determined to have nothing to do with him. Ever since I learned that he had called Tolkien “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature”, I have felt honor-bound as a Tolkien fan of the first order to deny him my reading custom. A bit silly, really. But when review copies of some of Miéville’s newer books started crossing my desk, I felt I should at least read the jacket blurbs — that wouldn’t be betraying Tolkien, would it? Almost against my will, my interest rose. When I read the publisher’s summary for Kraken, a smile fought its way onto my face, and I couldn’t keep from muttering, “gosh, that does sound good.”
And boy, is it! It might just be the most entertaining new book I’ve read in the last few years. A review seemed the appropriate way to make amends for dismissing this author too hastily, as it seems I have done. I’m still smarting over his dismissal of Tolkien, but I see now there’s plenty of room in the world of fantasy literature for both of them — and even more surprisingly, that both authors can find a fan in the same reader.
Kraken is a novel full of big ideas, written by a man with a big imagination. It’s an rollicking urban fantasy set in London, the same London you and I know, but with a hidden undercurrent of magic — “knacking”, in Miéville’s patois; as in, working with fire is one person’s knack, predicting the future by reading the entrails of the city is another person’s knack, and so on. Recalling works by H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Charles Williams, and others, Miéville’s novel is a kind of fish-out-of-water story, in which the main character suddenly becomes aware of a supernatural world he never suspected could possibly exist. In this case, the “fish out of water” metaphor is almost literal, as the central concern in the novel is a giant squid, some eight meters in length, and quite dead. It’s a specimen of Architeuthis dux housed in the Darwin Centre, curated by one Billy Harrow, our fish out of water. One of Billy’s duties is to conduct visitors on a tour of the impressive facilities, culminating in the giant squid, its most impressive specimen (“ooh”, “aah”!). One day, it’s gone. The giant squid, its twenty-five-foot-long tank, thousands of gallons of preserving fluid — simply disappeared without evidence or explanation.
After the “squidnapping”, a secret branch of the London police, the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit, pays Billy a visit. The FSRC suspect a giant-squid-worshipping cult as the culprits. But this cult is one of many, and no sooner is the curtain drawn back than Billy finds himself in the crossfire of these bizarre, conflicting religions, each run by its own kingpin. One of these, the Tattoo, is just that: a talking tattoo on an innocent man’s back. Another, Grisamentum, may or may not be dead. Each of these mobbish cults has its thugs and acolytes, and their respective M.O.’s are among the strangest and most chilling I have read. From Gunfarmers — when they shoot their victims, the bullets remain inside like maggots and grow into new guns, hatching from within; to “Knuckleheads” — street fighters with giant fists instead of heads; to Chaos Nazis — who can torture you to the very point of death, then turn back time, healing you so they can do it again and again. There are also familiars, monsterherds, pyromancers, necromancers, and even Londonmancers. And then there are Goss and Subby. The less said of them, the better, but this pair of villains is among the creepiest I’ve ever encountered.
If this sounds like a complicated story with a huge cast of characters, it is — and then some! But Miéville handles it all masterfully, giving each group its own voices, and explaining their abilities, beliefs, and motives adeptly. At its heart, the tale is all about competing Armageddonim — “London had had to grow used to such arcane plural forms”. Each cult wants to bring about its own particular end of the world; a matter of pride, really. The Londmancers have foretold that the stolen squid will somehow bring about the real end of the world, a final end, once and for all. Not just the end of the world, but such an end as to make the world never have been in the first place. The prophecy sees London destroyed by katachronophlogiston, an uncontrollable substance that destroys by both fire and time, like this:
… its glow lit the pickled frogs within a jar. They shifted. They shrank in the time-blistering warmth, tugged their limbs into their trunks. They became more paltry, ungainly long-tailed legless tadpoles. He held the flame so it licked the glass of the jar, and after a second of warming it burst into sand and sent the tadpoles spraying. They reversed and undid their having been and shrank as they fell, and never were, and nothing hit the floor.
Imagine that engulfing the entire city, and you begin to understand the panic spreading through London’s undercircles. Even ordinary Londoners begin to feel an anxiety they can’t explain as the prophesied end approaches. Billy and his allies, pursued from all sides and running out of time, have one aim: to prevent the end of the world. And the giant squid, no less than a stolen god, lies at the heart of the mystery.
The novel is equal parts chilling, hair-raising, starkly funny, and surreal. It’s not a book for young people. No sex, but the language is quite adult, and the violence is sometimes gut-churning. Neither felt gratuitous to me. Having enjoyed this novel so much, I am ready to give Miéville another chance. One almost gets the feeling he has thrown into Kraken every last bit of oddball invention at his command. How could there be more? Yet this is Miéville’s eighth novel. If the others are anything like this one, I may find myself among the converted!