China Miéville, Kraken (2010) – Gotta say… I was always a whale guy in the squid-whale dichotomy. I know, I know, the cool kids are all about cephalopods these days, but that just makes me back my mammal friends all the more. And there’s no “Moby-Dick” about squid. Miéville’s “The Kraken” ain’t it, either.
To be fair, I doubt it’s trying to be, and what it amounts to is something pretty decent. As the back copy will tell you, somebody steals a dead giant squid (and its tank) from a London museum, which sends its caretaker Billy into a world of competing cults, magical weirdos, magic cops, and assorted terrors. The big dead squid has big juju and it’s own cult of squid-worshippers, and so magical London — which is less officially hidden than generally ignored — is all in an uproar over what to do about it.
Most reviews don’t go much past the back copy, and I think there’s two reasons for that. For one, spoilers- there’s a big twist in the end and no one wants to give it away. Second, and I think more importantly, the plot swirls maniacally and is littered with all kinds of stuff China Miéville thought was cool. There are at least five agendas to attend to, including that of Billy, the closest thing to a central viewpoint character, and each of these agendas have assorted arcane obstacles and helpers, all of which require explanation.
What does some of this include? Well: a gang boss who is a sentient tattoo on someone’s back and who makes people-machine hybrids; another gang boss who’s a dead magician; some magic cops, one of which is based on Amy Winehouse, who summon cop-ghosts from old police procedurals; magic Nazis; an ancient Egyptian demiurge of trade unionism who can embody himself in statues (and action figures); a cockney embodiment of evil; an iPod that’s bad at music but good at magical protection; several apocalypses; chronically depressed teleporters; “Londonmancers” who manipulate the city in various ways; were-squid . And I’m leaving stuff out.
When the plot comes together, it ultimately works, especially knowing Miéville’s body of work and his commitments (he’s a big leftie and former ISO member, for those playing the home game). It’s a long, confusing, but mostly fun ride getting there. It all depends on what proportion of and which of the things Miéville throws against the wall make your eyes roll. Without getting into spoilers, the magic in “The Kraken” relies on metaphors, and so the denizens of magical London take metaphor extremely seriously, to the point of silliness at times. But for the most part, Miéville’s storytelling and vast powers of invention prove winning. ****