by China Miéville
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Over the last decade, the speculative fiction genre has become increasingly steeped in weirdness, and author China Miéville has lead that charge, with a twisted and brilliant body of work that has put him in a class by himself. But while Miéville’s bizarre ideas are second to none, his execution is sometimes uneven.
Such is the case in his novel Kraken, a foray into real-world Urban Fantasy that exemplifies both the best and worst aspects of Miéville’s writing style.
Billy Harrow is a curator at the Darwin Centre at the London Natural History Museum, in charge of preserving biological specimens. His crowning career achievement is the preservation of a giant squid, located in an immense glass vat at the heart of the museum. But while conducting a museum tour one day, Billy discovers that the squid has—impossibly—been stolen, vat and all.
Billy wonders why the police investigation is being led by a unit that specializes in religious fringe groups and occult crimes—until he gets tangled up with members of a squid cult, who usher Billy into a supernatural London underground of obscure and absurd religions rife with mystical occult powers and dangerous magical beings. As it turns out, the squidnapping is somehow tied to an encroaching apocalypse, and Billy is the key to stopping it.
Kraken hearkens back to Miéville’s debut novel, King Rat—also a London-based Urban Fantasy. But where that book used existing mythical archetypes, Kraken provides a cavalcade of completely original and twisted supernatural characters to delight and terrify readers. And despite page after page of swirling madness, you get the sense that Miéville has barely scratched the surface of this eldritch London.
In this respect, Kraken represents Miéville at his best. But these whirlwind oddities also fuel some of the novel’s key weaknesses.
Miéville tends to get playful with the language, which is normally fine because he’s so facile at it. As his novels Railsea and Perdido Street Station exemplify, there’s noting quite so entertaining as Miéville on one of his eloquent tears. But in Kraken, this exuberance often strays into self-indulgence, and many of the book’s passages are just plain overwritten. When language distracts rather than enhances, tedium and annoyance set in. And while it’s nothing like the slog of his novels Embassytown or Iron Council, there were sections later in Kraken where I wished Miéville would just get on with the story already.
Which is kind of ironic, because the style Miéville initially employs in Kraken is very similar to the one he uses in his DC comic Dial H. The beginning chapters are so short, visceral and visual it makes me wonder if Kraken didn’t begin life as a treatment for a comic book series, either as a dry run that Miéville did for himself or a proof of concept to show DC that he could work in the form. Many of the characters are very character-y and would readily translate into the sequential art format.
All of this makes Kraken something of an oddity, even for Miéville. And while I suspect that existing fans will embrace the book, its unevenness might be off-putting to those unfamiliar with Miéville’s other work. If you’re among the latter, I’d recommend reading Perdido Street Station or The City and The City first. You will then be better equipped to wrestle with the tangle of squid-centered Miévillesque weirdness that is Kraken.