There are two adjectives for China Miéville’s Kraken: “fun” and “exhilarating.”
Miéville’s longer works have always seemed serious to me. Intricately imagined, believably peopled with intriguing characters, and told with elaborate arabesques and flourishes of language, they were still serious, even grave. Kraken is not. Maybe Miéville just needed to burn off some energy after coming off his stylistically restrained The City and the City, but Kraken is not a serious book, even though serious things happen. Good people die, others suffer great loss, the End of Days is upon us, and it still reads like a world-class thrill ride.
Billy Harrow is a curator at a natural history museum in London. The museum boasts a specimen of architeuthis, a giant squid, that Billy actually helped preserve. Billy’s carefree existence of work, listening to music, reading books and sipping a pint with his old college friend Leon ends abruptly when the squid and its glass tank disappear from the display room, something that should be impossible. In short order, Billy is interrogated by some very unusual cops from the Cult Squad, abducted by a man and a boy who unfold, origami-like, from a package, threatened by a sentient tattoo, and introduced to the Church of the Kraken, a group that worships the missing squid as God.
Billy quickly learns that in addition to quotidian London there is a layer he never saw before, Magical London, and all of Magical London wants the squid. The Church of the Kraken wants it because it is sacred. The Londonmancers want it to keep it safe. The followers of a dead criminal/magician/cultist want it. The Tattoo wants it because other people want it. Most of them think Billy has it, and those who don’t think he can find it. He is forced to put his trust in Kraken true-believer Dane in order to survive this strange new world.
Miéville is a highly-educated, well-read, powerful writer who thinks about economics, politics, faith and science. He also frolics in the pop-culture environment like a dolphin in tropical surf. Kraken is filled with pop-culture references, many of them science-fictional and fantastical, some I didn’t even get. Whether it’s Harry Potter, Men in Black, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Blake’s Seven or any generation of Star Trek, it gets a nod, as do more esoteric offerings like Farscape and Lexx. Star Trek, represented by a functioning phaser and a James T. Kirk figurine, plays prominently in the plot.
In Looking for Jake, Miéville has a story called “’Tis the Season.” It is a funny story. Kraken has the same sensibility. One of Billy’s otherworldly allies is a paranormal union organizer, trying to maintain a strike by magical familiars against their magician bosses. The Chaos Nazis are genuine bad-guys who believe in pain, death, anti-Semitism, and looking fabulous, in a velvet-coat-and-lace-cuffs kind of way.
All of Miéville’s trademark weirdness is spread out like a sidewalk market. Humans are metamorphosed into cell phones and radios; tattoos can think, talk and plan revenge; and the ocean has an embassy in London. Marge, Leon’s valiant and devoted girl-friend, enters Magical London with a protective spirit housed in her iPod, and Billy attracts a guardian angel made of bones and bottles.
My complaint? Billy adjusts to the reality of Magical London very easily, as does Marge — although Marge has time to peruse the internet first, and may be slightly better prepared, at least intellectually. We still never see, in either of these characters, a real struggle with disbelief, and the integration of acceptance, or knowledge. I found Billy’s education confusing, too. Early in the book we are told that Billy pursued or attained a higher level degree in theology and then switched to science. Since we have Dane, a true believer, I kept expecting Billy’s education to matter, but the second shoe never dropped. Billy may represent a microcosm of the world in the book. If so, that layer of symbolism wasn’t needed. The dance of religion/science, faith/knowledge, fear/spirituality plays out just fine, and Billy’s possible divinity degree is a distraction.
The City and the City, at heart an origin story, had a gray tone with flashes of color in the cross-hatched areas where the cities bled together. It was almost a police procedural. In contrast, Kraken is an all-access pass to the raucous, smoky, candle-and-neon-lit, swirling, deadly, music-throbbing, beer-guzzling, drug-gulping, ethereal, incense-scented, protean, ink-stained, kaleidoscopic, smile-as-we-cut-your-throat-dangerous, surreal, unreal, godly, squidly, twenty four/seven street carnival of Magical London. It is suspenseful. It is scary. And it’s fun.