By China Miéville
(Macmillan, 7 May 2010)
You think you know London? You don't. Forget the black cabs and the red letter boxes, forget the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. In Kraken, China Miéville reveals a secret London of abandoned parking lots, deserted warehouses and desolate urban wasteland, where every dark alley might hide something terrible, where every flicker of a streetlight might convey a hidden message. A London where dozens of bizarre cults wage war on each other, in the hope of bringing about their own version of the apocalypse.
And that apocalypse is much closer than anyone realises.
It is this nightmarish underbelly of London that Billy Harrow, curator at the Darwin Centre, unwittingly finds himself dragged into, after the Darwin Centre's prize exhibit - a giant squid - somehow vanishes without a trace. As Billy finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the horrors and micro-politics of this hidden London, he gradually learns that the stolen squid is somehow central to the unfolding events... and that the link he possesses to the creature is the only hope of averting the impending apocalypse.
Miéville's last effort, The City and the City, was something of a departure for him in the sense that - aside from the premise - it was a novel notable largely for its lack of speculative genre elements, with its roots much more firmly in the hardboiled, noir crime novel. At times, it did feel that that novel's setting inhibited Miéville's natural creativity, that to some degree his imaginative wings were clipped.
Not so in Kraken. In his new novel, Miéville unleashes the full power of his imagination. The result is often spectacular.
The secret London that provides the setting for most of Kraken's events is superbly realized, full of distinctive characters and imaginative flourishes that remind the reader time and time again just how creative Miéville can be. Few writers can evoke the brooding grandeur of a city as well as Miéville, and the desolate nature of his urban structures lends a suitably oppressive tone to much of the proceedings.
Yet this is by no means a bleak novel, as there's a surprising amount of humour thrown in, along with numerous references to geek/internet culture that lend the novel a very contemporary edge. Furthermore, there's a certain wryness that permeates the entire story, and surfaces from time to time: it's never quite clear how seriously you're meant to take it. A lot of the time the novel is a ludicrous geek-fest (how could a novel about a giant squid not be?) but at other times it's dark and unflinchingly brutal. A strange mix perhaps, but it's one that Miéville judges to perfection.
Billy Harrow makes for a solid protagonist; it's interesting to see how he adapts to this secret London that he was blissfully unaware of before, and Miéville handles his development well. Collingswood is amusing as the straight-talking police officer with attitude (not to mention a few tricks of her own), while Wati's inability to take physical form and subsequent need to inhabit objects is often hugely entertaining. The stars of the show though are Goss and Subby: surely the finest antagonists Miéville has ever created. The duo are a wonderful creation, exuding real menace and injecting tension into every scene they're in. Put simply, they're terrifying. It's no coincidence that they're involved in some of the novel's best moments.
With Kraken, Miéville has adopted a different style of prose that is less baroque than that of the Bas-Lag novels, though more vibrant than that of The City and the City. Sometimes it's a little dense and overbearing; now and again the narrative struggles beneath the weight of the prose. Miéville is a wonderful stylist though, and Kraken contains some sublime prose that is both poetic and evocative. The speculative genre is badly in need of more writers with Miéville's eye for style and love of words.
Kraken isn't an easy read; at times early on in the book the story flounders a little and struggles to get going. However, once it does there's no stopping it: the plot may be fairly simple, but the story itself is full of twists and surprising revelations. After a lumbering start, it moves along at a decent pace that builds to a satisfying climax.
Verdict: After the mainstream appeal of The City and the City, it's great to see Miéville fully embracing the weird and wonderful again. Kraken is an excellent example of the potential that the fantasy genre possesses when its boundaries are pushed and pulled. It's also the sign of a writer working at the height of his creativity; in terms of sheer imaginative power, Miéville blows most other writers away. Despite its minor flaws, Kraken is an absorbing story that is by turns amusing, shocking and utterly enthralling, and is all wrapped up in the weirdness that Miéville is famed for (along with a healthy dose of gleeful wit). The result is both bizarre and wonderful. Who said the New Weird was dead?