(2010) China Miéville, Macmillan, £17.99, hrdbk, 400 pp, ISBN 978-033-398950-0
I am a huge Frank Zappa fan and admire greatly his satirical song-writing and his prowess on the guitar, but my hero-worshipping is not blinkered enough to recognise his failings as a jazz and classical composer. It’s a bit like that line out of Amadeus when Mozart is told “there’s too many notes”. Likewise my favourite Chuck Palahniuk novel is Lullaby about a man’s quest to destroy the copies of a book which includes an African culling poem – basically a song sung to children when times were hard to put them out of their misery. The problem is that Palahniuk then puts layer and layer of other fantastical plotlines on top of this central conceit - many of which could have been the basis for stand-alone novels themselves.
So can you detect a theme here? Yep, you’ve guessed it. Kraken is just too much, far too much. Plot overload city Arizona. Not to say that the book is not enjoyable. Hey, it’s Mieville after all, not at his best, but still pretty close, and if you are a Miéville fan you are in for one hell of a ride, but if this is your first encounter with him, then, oh, boy what an introduction. Kraken is as far away from the tightly-controlled writing of his previous novel - the award-winning The City and eht ytiC as you can get, given that it spirals off in so many directions, and yet, right at the heart of this novel is a city. The city. London. Which obviously throws up comparisons with Miéville’s own fantastical children’s novel about another London, Un Lun Dun, and also, inevitably Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as we have a secret society within a city, or below a city, and with just as amazing characters that populated Gaiman’s novel, while magic lurks under the surface of a normal veneer.
Mieville also has a couple of memorable nasties known as Subby and Goss which cannot help draw comparison with Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar. Also due to the swiftness and everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach to the writing it is very reminiscent of DC Vertigo’s John Constantine Hellblazer series given the very visual nature of some of the characters – for instance, the crimelord, the Tattoo, could have easily come from a Vertigo comic.
What is Kraken about? Well, there may be a clue in the title, but not much. Archie has been stolen from the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, and this is an impossible theft. Why? Because Archie is a giant squid, the Architeuchis dux, an 8 metre long squid, preserved in a huge tank, but both have been stolen –impossible! Who could have taken the squid, and how on earth could they have got him out of the building unnoticed?
Curator Billy Harrow, leading a party of tourists makes the discovery and on the way to the tank he thought he saw one of the security guards, Dane, nod to a the tourist and not so long after the theft, Dan, the guard has disappeared and Billy is dealing with secret officials, including the foul-mouthed, chain smoking policewoman Kath Collingswood who has the ability to 'push' people into doing what she wants. Billy soon encounters the terrible duo, Goss and Subby who have their own brand of origami, capable of folding objects, even people, and not always in a way that will restore them to their normal state, or even life. They are employed by the Tattoo, a crime boss who wants Billy and the information he has, even if he does not know he has it in the first place.
Fortunately, Billy is rescued by Dane who turns out to be a member of a Kraken-inspired religious cult who believe Archie to be a god, and Billy, because of his closeness to the squid is seen as something as a prophet, taken to a subterranean lair and given squid ink to drink to induce dreams and visions. Every god needs its own church and followers, and every god has its day eventually, and when that comes it will bring the end of the World, but there are a lot of gods out there and lots of followers clamouring to bring about their own brand of apocalypse. Can Billy save the World? Can he even save himself? On his journey we will encounter squirrel familiars, spirits that can move from statue to statue, and a special police unit that deals with the paranormal called the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit, the city’s own corps of magicians known as the Londonmancers, and a whole lot of cults and sects, and much, much more besides.
This is a novel which is fast, furious, funny in places and totally, totally insane. Miéville obviously had a lot of fun writing Kraken, and popular fantasy series like Star Trek and Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer come into his sights only to get a flesh wound or two, and I suppose to a lesser extent popular culture in the form of The X-Files, Torchwood, Warehouse 13, and the Friday the 13th TV series do not get off lightly either. What would I give this? 4 out of 5? 8 out of 10? Pretty good, but still it is all too much! Too much! Ma heid’s birlin, to use an old Scottish phrase.
See Jonathan's take on Kraken.
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