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by China Mieville

Subterranean | October, 2010 | 935 words

Reviewed by Katherine Tomlinson


China Mieville’s Kraken begins with the theft of a giant squid and the massive, formalin-filled tank where it was displayed at London’s Darwin Centre.  The crime is so odd and so logistically complex—the dead squid was nearly nine meters long—that it baffles Billy Harrow, the curator of mollusks at the Centre and the man in charge of the crowd-pleasing exhibit, even more than it intrigues the police. 

The theft of the squid they called “Archie” (for its scientific name Architeuthis dux) leaves Billy oddly disoriented, as if something about the squid’s presence had been anchoring him and now he’s drifting free. 

Chief Inspector Baron, whose interest in the squid is not scientific at all, enlists Billy’s aid in solving the crime, which seems to be related to both the theft of an obscure 19th century journal and a rising tide of apocalyptic prophesies threatening to engulf the city.  Before long, Billy is dragged into a world he never suspected existed below the surface of the city and sent on a journey that could end with the end of everything or the beginning of something else.

Before everything comes to its spectacular conclusion, Billy will have met the love of his life, a group of squid-worshiping cultists and a squad of apocalypse-chasing cops that are exceedingly over-matched as the gods take back the city that has always been theirs.

China Mieville is a writer who defies categorization and this is a book that’s not easy to pigeonhole.  What Mieville does is called “New Weird,” but Kraken is so much more than these two simple words can convey—it’s an urban fantasy married to a neo-noir sensibility that’s served up with a strong sense of humor and geek pride.  Ultimately, it’s just easiest to call this Mieville’s latest book and leave classification to the librarians.

Billy is very much a reluctant hero who wishes he could just go home and go to bed until the whole event blows over.  Unlike his colleagues, who think the theft and the subsequent discovery of a murder is the most interesting thing that’s happened in London since the turn of the century, Billy is simply troubled by the goings on. 

The only upside for him is the presence of the rude, but oddly alluring, PC Kath Collingwood.  Billy can’t quite figure her out, but then, his whole world has been overturned.  Nothing is what it seems, and suddenly the city he lives in seems as alien to him as an outpost on Mars.

“The streets of London are synapses hard-wired for worship,” one character explains to Billy as it becomes obvious that London is filled with literal gods who are rousing and rising and claiming their followers who adore their various deities with rites both odd and arcane.  London itself becomes a multi-dimensional grid where religious acts intersect with crime, and fantastical moments become mundane. 

Much as he did with The City and the City, Mieville creates a city that inhabits several overlapping dimensions and this metropolitan multiplicity allows for a variety of apocalypses to develop.  “It is,” as one character says, “the ends of the world.”  Or maybe not…

The fate of London—indeed the world—depends on the Londonmancers and the Angels of Memory and everybody else who joins the fray, which goes “meta” before Billy finds himself at sea—both literally and metaphorically, trying to commune with a cryptic god, a living Tattoo and a group of shape-shifting magical familiars (they prefer the term “magicked assistants”) who have gone on strike. 

Tattoo, by the way, is one of the most chilling villains we’ve seen in a long while.  Fans of Vampire Hunter D may recognize him as a version of the parasitic face D and that’s a reference that fits right into a story that riffs on everything from Star Trek to Charles Darwin.  Mieville is a literary writer working in genre fiction who is not afraid to appeal to genre fans even as he spins his fantastic tale.  (Think Neil Gaiman on crack.)

The characters are well drawn, especially Billy, who is our initially skeptical guide on this off-the-map tour of London.  He, in turn, is dragged toward enlightenment by his colleague Dane, who is pursuing his own destiny and encounter with the godhead.  Dane is a man of action in contrast to Billy’s man of reaction and he’s a bracing presence and one of the few characters who is (mostly) exactly what he appears to be.  The two women in the story—Saira the Londonmancer and Kath the cop—can both see the signs and portents that have appeared all over the city and in their individual ways and with their particular magic, they work toward a resolution of the crisis.

The genius of the narrative is that Mieville has anchored all the weird stuff with a perfectly routine police procedural where the police (and Billy) follow up leads and chase down clues and uncover information.  The cops who’re investigating the theft of the squid and the scientific journal and the murder may not be ordinary cops, but the way the investigation plays out will be familiar to anyone who watches CSI.

Kraken is possibly Mieville’s most accessible novel to date, despite the slip-streaming plot elements and his complete disregard for novelistic conventions. Readers will be delighted by the wordplay, enlightened by the research that informs the story and just plain entertained by the read.

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