By China Miéville
Pub: Pan Books
Kraken is a book I should have got round to reading a long time ago, but it seems strangely appropriate to be talking about it now, with the first footage of a giant squid in it’s natural habitat having been released this week. But less science, onto the book.
Billy Harrow is a man out of his depth, although he’s assured, by some, that it is far deeper than he imagines. A curator at London’s Natural History Museum, he was part of the team responsible for preserving the giant squid that sat at the heart of the Darwin Centre. The 8 meter (ish) long specimen, that one morning simply isn’t there. Someone, or someones has pulled off an impossible theft.
For the sake of avoiding romanticising the squid (we’re not that kind of site), here is Archie (no, really) in his tank.
The discovery of the theft places Billy at the heart of a conspiracy in a world he doesn’t know exists; a London rife with magicians, cults, prophets, gangs, sects, familiars, and gods. Not to mention the Met’s own small magical task force, the FSRC, the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit. To some of them the squid is more than just a museum curiosity, it’s a creature that holds the apocalypse in it’s tentacled grasp.
China Miéville’s writing style is idosyncratic, and it’ll drive you off if you can’t settle to it. If you can though, the staccato rhythm suits the book incredibly well. There’s much of the uncanny setting left unexplored, with groups, factions and places left as hanging meat hooks to snag in the readers brain, mentioned only as titbits and allusions.
Billy feels well rounded, and his reactions feel like the most markedly real thing in a book full of the unreal. His friends, allies, accomplices and enemies are less pinned down, and better for it, as their mystery only serves to enhance the demarcation between the weirder London and Billy.
And London is as much the star as Billy. There’s the unsettling overlay of the real and unreal in the book that is only tempered by having heard of those places, been in that building or stood in that spot.
There are similarities to be drawn between Kraken and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Both feature a protagonist unwillingly pulled into a darker, deeper, more magical London, and being changed by the experience. Is it going to appeal to the same people? Undoubtedly yes, although tone and style are far removed. While Neverwhere, though macabre, always had something magical glittering in the darkness, Kraken leans more towards the black cold of the ocean depths; the violence and magic has a different aspect, a rougher edge. There are many characters who simply won’t survive, and the book gains weight and power from the feeling of no one being safe.
I can only recommend Kraken. It’s a fantastic book that takes the reader on an unlikely journey through a supernaturally tinged world that’s a far remove from the usual urban haunts of vampires, zombies and werewovles. The unfamiliarity and the unexpected plot this allows is one of the highlights.