Thursday, 3 March 2011

China Miéville: Kraken (2010)

Fantasy is full of strange and alien gods, from H.P. Lovecraft's Chthulu onwards. Kraken is in this tradition, telling the story of Billy, a scientist in the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre haplessly caught up in the occult when the complete giant squid specimen which he preserved disappears from its case without the glass being broken. A police investigation seems surprisingly perfunctory, concluding with an injunction not to tell anyone; but Billy is able to overcome the strange reluctance he has to talk and this just gets him deeper into a world of kraken worshippers, occult knacks and violent fundamentalist cults, a world hidden from the London most of the city's inhabitants know.

Kraken is not a new departure for Miéville. It reads like a cross between children's book UnLunDun and the New Crobuzon novels, the background being a nastier version of the first (the Knuckleheads are perhaps the most obvious detail) and the style and tone coming from the second. It is brutal, dark, and extremely well written. The characters are well drawn, particularly Billy, his friend Dale and policewoman Kathy.

The darkness is leavened to a certain extent by little flashes of wit, often almost Pratchettesque jokes. Typical is the idea of an artistic movement calling itself "the Exhausted"; artists who do similar work without being full members are described as "the Somewhat Tired". These moments were for me the best parts of Kraken; like Pratchett's humour, they do not seem contrived but just fit.

But... I didn't enjoy reading Kraken much. Of his other novels, I found The City and the City fascinating, and Un Lun Dun one of the best children's fantasy novels I have ever read. All the others, including Kraken, are writing I want to admire from a distance, but don't particularly enjoy close up acquaintance with. Overall rating: 7/10.

Edition: Pan, 2010
Review number: 1415

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