Fiction Reviews


(2010) China Miéville, Pan Books, £7.99 / Can$13.99, pbk, 481pp, ISBN 978-0-330-49232-4


Billy Harrow is a curator at the Natural History Museum, in Kensington, London, and a bit of an expert on marine cephalopod systematics. Part of his duties is to occasionally take the public on a tour of its Darwin Centre wing which houses many specimens including one of Architeuthis dux, the giant squid: it is one of Billy's favourite specimens. However, one day as he was about to show a tour the Architeuthis all that is there is an empty giant glass container; the specimen has gone!

How the bulky giant squid was removed is a mystery but if all this were not enough, it is the new fantastical yet seedy world of London in which Billy finds himself. First there were the investigating police who seem to be part of some special unit and which includes Collingswood who is a young, make-up wearing, and an almost chain smoking policewoman, a psychology professor called Patrick Vardy, and their team leader called Baron. They question Billy not only because he is an expert on the specimen but also because he was the person who found it missing.

Then later Billy is back in his flat with a friend, Leon, when a medium-sized package arrives. Opening it, impossibly given the parcel's size, out come two people: an elderly man who breaths smoke (but who is not smoking) called Goss and a young boy called Subby. A horrific event quickly follows when Goss and Subby kill Leon and take Billy to see a mysterious man with a tattoo that speaks. But soon Billy escapes due to the (seemingly) fortuitous arrival of Leon (a guard at the museum) who himself is part of an end-of-days cult who worship the Architeuthis or Kraken. One thing leads to another and Billy and Leon find themselves on the run. They have to solve the mystery of what happened to the missing Architeuthis dux, while eluding the police, Goss and Subby as well as the cult…

Kraken is a beautifully written fantasy that vibrantly portrays an alternate and fantastical, albeit a somewhat seedy, London, and features vivid characters from the all too human (partially flawed) protagonist to the fantastical folk of, or who delve into, the other realm wrapping itself around London's superficial reality. The Kraken itself makes for an appropriate subject about which the novel revolves considering its genre pedigree in speculative fiction from Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes (1953) not to mention the giant squid attacking the Nautilus in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870). Indeed the Kraken has even centuries older roots in many coastal NW European cultures.

All in all, Miéville's regular readers will not be disappointed and I dare say that this novel will be at least short-listed for some awards. Newcomers to Miéville (especially those whose preferences lean firmly towards hard SF) may care to note that this is a work of fantasy and not science fiction: what little science there is is irrelevant, though the author has got someone with a knowledge of systematics to get the nomenclature and its background right. So there are poor pickings for such hard SF readers unless, that is, they get off on enjoying well-crafted writing styles: it is the writing and the fantasy story where Kraken scores if not excels.

Criticisms, well really just one, though a major one, but only because I am a biologist and also as someone who for one and a half decades I worked in the shadow of, and occasionally with, the Natural History Museum in Kensington. I therefore have a knowledge of the building a little above and beyond that of the casual visitor having been behind the scenes on a number of occasions. As for the environs of Kensington, I have a somewhat intimate familiarity of the area which was the home of the erstwhile Institute of Biology. Furthermore, much of my work (and some of my socialising) over the past three decades has taken place down in London. So for me the book's single, major weakness is that it fails to convey life in and around the museum, not least the surrounding area and London as a whole. The novel's setting could really be any old British city, just insert a few local place names, and leave the characters, plot and writing to carry the story.

Now, do not get me wrong, Miéville's characters, plot and writing in Kraken are more than sufficient to propel the story, but as someone familiar with the novel's setting (let alone being aware of some aspects of cephalopoda, the class of mollusc to which the 'kraken' squid belong, such as their intelligence and ancient evolutionary origins) it is plain that the novel lacks a key dimension: its backdrop. Indeed it has to be said that I did not at all recognise the burl of Kensington with its heady colloidal cocktail of distinct yet largely immiscible cultures: the ultra rich locals, cash-pressed students, the tourists, the intellectually wealthy academics, those of the French quarter community, transients from other parts of London, etc., etc,. each of whom brings something distinctly different to, and yet compositely make up, Kensington life. And then there is the architecture beyond the museum: the upstairs-downstairs residential buildings, raised roads, (as revealed by lower) back street mews that date from the age of horse and carriage, the randomly located blocks of new development from space created by the WWII blitz… I could go on but, as none of this is in the novel, there is no point. Perhaps this omission of background was deliberate in that the bland non-description of the real Kensington really does contrasts markedly with the fantastical alternate London Miéville presents. But if this omission was premeditated for this purpose then it is a cop out: contrasting the magic (cultural and intellectual) of the real Kensington with that of a fantastical alternate would really have been a sharper and a more interesting distinction had the author pulled it off. Alas he did not try. Furthermore, there is a similarly stark a contrast to be made with the novel's science and the religious/fantastical dimensions. Fortunately, Miéville has embryonically begun to make this contrast even if it is not explored to the potential depth it might have been. However these failings in the novel's backdrop can, for the casual reader, be overlooked given the strength of the characters centre stage.

In short, what we have in Kraken is a novel that will appeal both to fantasy fans as well as mainstream litcrit types. So it will do well and undoubtedly (if not somewhat deservedly) accrue a good reception. Indeed with Kraken, for readers of contemporary literary fantasy, Miéville demonstrates that he continues to be hard to ignore.

Jonathan Cowie

See Ian's take on Kraken.

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