Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Kraken by China Mieville

I think the highest compliment I could pay Kraken, and it is incredibly high praise for me, is that it reads like the type of book that Tim Powers would write if he were an British Leftist rather than a Californian Catholic. There is a character who is drawn into a world of magical societies, and large scale conflict between them. There are the absurd ideas played entirely straight that manage to be both funny and effectively tense, scary and insightful at the same time. There’s a sense of endless invention; of what surely must be too many ideas going at once. No way they can land the plane. And if the final twist of Kraken seemed a little on the nose to me on this reread, it was no more so than the weird Jungian Communion scene at the end of Last Call (my favorite Powers novel). Mieville has cited Powers as a hero, so I’m sure he’d take that as praise. This is funnier than Powers. It also shares some DNA with Foucault’s Pendulum, in that the central joke is at the expense of the various apocalyptic cults that are fighting for their version of the apocalypse. If I described this as a Lovecraftian thriller I wouldn’t be lying. That said, Mieville is his own writer with a distinct voice, and ticking off things this reminded me of, or that seem to have directly influenced it sells it short. Here he’s being a little more playful than some of the other works I’ve read and it suits his style very well.

At the outset, Billy Harrow is a curator at the Natural History Museum and he has created a display of the first complete giant squid body anyone has found. He gives a tour to eager nature lovers and is shocked when the squid has completely disappeared, giant bottle and all. A special unit of the police who deal in supernatural/cultic crimes comes to investigate. The inital prime suspect is the Church of God Kraken. In their mythology the Krackens or giant squids are gods, and all the lesser squid are saints. But they are not the only apocalypse cult in London. There are the Londonmancers, neutral observer magicians tied to the city. There are supernatural gangs fighting each other, one led by the Tattoo, a gangster who was punished by being turned into a sentient tattoo on another man’s back and nonetheless rises back to power. There is a Familiar’s Union that is on strike. And this is not the weirdest stuff that happens. Anyone with any prophetic power sees that if the missing Kraken falls into the wrong hands the world will end.

I don’t want to spoil anything so I won’t go into much more detail about the plot other than to say that it is consistently surprising and enough happens to fill several books. If he had tweaked things slightly there are at least three series that could come out of this. The supernatural police squad (this seems least likely because Mieville seems to distrust the police), a series following Dane, a sort of fixer/soldier at large for the Kraken Church, and the further adventures of Billy Harrow. There could still be sequels should Mieville choose, but it is complete in itself.

After finally getting around to This Census Taker recently, and reading so much Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction last year, I definitely wanted to revisit this, and I’m glad I did. It is darkly funny, genuinely scary, has great prose and moves at an incredible pace. There are so many things happening, but Mieville trusts the reader to keep up and manages to pull everything together. I’m currently reading a book of Mieville’s short stories which is the last of his books that I have on the shelf already. I am very much looking forward to getting to more of them once my book buying fast year is over. I suspect I’ll end up revisiting a couple more of his books once I hit my goal of 75 books that I own but haven’t yet read for the year. I really loved Mieville’s work when I discovered it around a decade or so ago. I was discovering a lot of other authors around then and I think I may have sold Mieville a little short. He is one of the best working today, up there with Kelly Link, Caitlin Kiernan, Jeff Vandermeer, Neil Gaiman, George Saunders, Victor Lavalle, Carmen Maria Machado etc. among those who work similar territory. I loved this book.


Rereads, Library Books, Etc 2020

No comments:

Post a Comment