Five: Kraken by China Miéville

This post’s a bit of a long and rambling one.

In a city like London…
Stop: that was an unhelpful way to think about it, because there was no city like London. That was the point.

If the title Kraken and the tentacles on the cover led you to think you were in for some Lovecraftian horror, you’d be wrong. Kraken is an exploration of a city, of the hidden things that are just outside of everyday notice. It’s a story of cults, gods, gangs, magick. It’s a very fun book.

It starts when the titular Kraken, a specimen of Architeuthis dux preserved and housed within the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, is stolen, impossibly. One of the museum’s curators, Billy Harrow, finds himself dragged in by the police Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Division – the kraken, it seems, is the focus of one cult’s worship. And it might just be time for their apocalypse. From there Billy finds himself getting deeper into the complex workings of the heresiopolis, the hidden side of London where those with the skill for magic – knacking, they call it – operate.

That initial introduction to this world, the revelation that something bigger is going on than just the theft of a preserved mollusk, happens in a series of chapters that are almost as bewildering to the reader as they are to Billy – you’re in there with him in his confusion as the FSRC officers hit him with a stream of questions, names, facts, insinuations, with no explanations to make sense of it all. You discover the world of the cults along with Billy, and come to understand it as he does.

After the very restrained, almost mundane The City & The City, Kraken is Miéville returning to the wildly inventive weirdness of the Bas-Lag novels and UnLunDun. A crime lord in the form of a living tattoo, whose knuckleheaded henchmen have literal knuckles for heads. An ancient Egyptian shabti spirit leads the Union of Magicked Animals in a strike for better working conditions for familiars. Londonmancers scry the future by reading and communing with the city. In Kraken‘s London, metaphor is magic, the symbolic becoming literal: If something is like something else, then for those with the knack it may as well be one and the same. London itself has something of a living, feeling metaphorical presence, at the same time singular and disparate between its various areas (Hoxton has always been traitor).

The book both explores and parodies the relationships people have with faith, in its various forms. There are absurd animal gods (just as real as any other, if people are willing to believe in them), and more ordinary faiths in unusual forms. There are “cult collectors” people who strive to join as many faiths as they can – “Some were always cynically in it for the notch on the bedpost, others Damascene certain for two or three days that this one was different, until they remembered their own natures and excommunicated themselves with indulgent chuckles.” There’s Vardy, a man who was once fundamentalist Christian until he became an atheist, who now resents the loss of the certainty and purpose he once had; and there’s Dane, a devout “Krakenist”, a good man willing to suffer or die for his beliefs. The faithful and faithless are no better or worse than anyone else; everyone has their flaws.

The novel’s perspective on all this, and the stretching of things to absurd extremes, makes it pretty funny at times. Seers, for example, are not all charlatans, yet paradoxically their predictions never agree, but when that all changes:

There was no pleasure, no I-told-you-so among the hedge-seers who had for so long predicted that the end was on its way. Now that everyone agreed with them–though they might abjure the insight–those who found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly the advance guard of mainstream opinion were at a bit of a loss. What was the point of dedicating your life to giving warnings if everyone who might have listened … merely nodded and agreed?

Miéville seems to have an almost playful relationship with the English language. Many of the characters speak in various forms of London vernacular, and the narrative often makes use of it as well, giving the prose something of a looser grammaticality, allowing an environment for Miéville’s coined terms or new twists of usage to flow naturally.

I don’t think I got quite the excitement at the creativity of it all that I did with Perdido Street Station and The Scar, but that’s not a particular lack in this novel – more that I’m accustomed now to this kind of weird. Miéville is one of the best authors currently writing fantasy and weird fiction, and Kraken is everything you want from a Miéville novel.

Next up: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Words WordPress doesn’t know: magick, knacking, scry, kraken. Goddammit, WordPress. Get a better dictionary.


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