I’m not quite sure I can provide a sensible review of China Miéville’s bizarre urban fantasy Kraken. I’ll tell you what I think, which is all that any book review can do, but for the most part I oscillated between absolutely adoring the strange oddities of the novel and despising it for the same exact thing. I’m not even sure I can give you a good synopsis—it’s a deep water trudge through the darkness where a lot of things are going on and there are strange deep-sea creatures that enchant you with their strangeness, but all at the same time you’re bogged down by it, being crushed under the pressure of the plot.
Our protagonist, Billy Harrow, is a museum curator who has a knack for preserving specimens, specifically the giant squid, genus Architeuthis. When the squid is stolen, Billy gets swept up in a magical London where the squid is one of many Gods, mob bosses come in the form of a tattoo on a man’s back, and the city itself can be gutted by Londonmancers who read the future in the entrails of pavement.
When I’m at a loss of where to start (which I am right now), I like to start with the why of why I decided to read this. I’d passed it multiple times in the bookshop and always picked it up (generally labelled as a Staff Pick), but I’d been seduced and burned by China Miéville before—specifically The Scar—and always kept my distance from his books. I read The Scar a long time ago, probably at a too-young age, and I had this feeling regarding it, kind of like a weird uneasiness in my stomach. I didn’t like it, but I should’ve liked it, yet there was something about it I just didn’t get. I felt like the author was laying down hints—big mind-blowing hints about the world and universe and everything—that I just couldn’t comprehend. Like God’s speaking to you and you can’t figure out exactly what is being said.
Then, I made a friend. This friend liked to read. This friend like to read the stuff I liked to read. We decided to do a book exchange and I would start. I went through his bookshelves, trying to decide what I should choose, and there was the Kraken. I thought it might be fate. I thought the book-universe was trying to tell me something. Plus, this book involved a giant squid and I’ve always been partial to the mysteries of the deep ocean. The darkness. The pressure. The large creatures that can live within it.
In the end, I felt like this book was a breath of fresh air—yet that air was the most putrid muggy gasp I’d ever breathed. The originality of the novel cannot be overlooked. Miéville’s imagination doesn’t just work outside the box. He’s universes outside the box. That, more than anything, kept me interested. I simply had no idea of what was going to come next.
It didn’t come in the form of people—it’s like Miéville has an incredible grasp on the soul of an object and he resurrects the inanimate to prove that it’s not only the living who have a stake in the world. The easiest example is Wati (personal Favorite Character, just saying). Present day, Wati is a spirit that jumps from dolls to statues to interact with the world and leads the Union of Magicked Assistants. Before, he was a shabti carved by an Egyptian rebel who somehow managed to transfer some of his anger and strength to Wati. In the end, Wati ended up using that defiance to lead a civil rights revolt in the underworld between the figurines carved to be mindless drones to do manual work on behalf of their afterlife ruler and the people and gods who’d they had been carved for. Essentially, Wati was an afterlife slave who decided enough was enough and fought to create equality in the afterlife by leading the first ever land-of-the-dead strike.
Self-named Wati led the first-ever strike in the afterlife. It escalated. That first revolt of the shabti, the uprising of the made….It was a brutal war of human spirits and quasi-souls made out of anger. Shabti killing shabti, killing the already dead, in heretic acts of meta-murder, sending the appalled souls of the deceased into some further afterlife about which nothing has ever been known. The fields were full of the corpses of souls.
Shabti were slaughtered in hundreds by gods but they killed gods too. The crude features of comrades no one had bothered to carve with precision making their own expressions out of the indistinct impressions given them, taking their axes and ploughs and the fucking baskets they were built carrying in a swarm over the bodies the size of mountains with jackal heads howling and eating them but being overrun by us and hacked with our stupid weapons and killed.
Not only does Wati bring democracy to the afterlife, he decides to leave the afterlife, sending him on an Orpheus-like rise from the underworld where his Eurydice is his history.
He moved too, at last, but he moved not beyond nor to any dark or light but sideways, through borders between belief-worlds.
An epic trek, that curious passage through foreign afterlifes. Always toward the source of the river or the beginning of the road. Swimming up through Murimuria, passing up through the caverns of Naraka and the shade of Yomi, crossing the rivers of Ruoni and Styx from the farthest shore back, to the ferryman’s consternation, through a kaleidoscope flutter of lands, passing psychopomps of all traditions who had to pause with the new dead they were escorting and whisper to Wati, you’re going the wrong way.
If Wati isn’t awesome enough, Miéville introduces his concept of angels. Not saccharine fluffy-winged humanoids, but instead keepers of memory, holders of a location’s soul, and how one left the Museum of Natural History to come to Billy’s rescue:
It was a skull on the top of a giant jar. A huge glass preserving bottle, of the type that Billy had for years been filling with preservative and animal dead. This one was nearly five feet high, full of flesh slough and clouding alcohol. On its glass lit was a shabby human skull liberated, Billy absolutely knew, from one of the cupboards of remains in the Natural History Museum. It snapped its teeth. Where the rim met the lid the flaring glass served as shoulders, and the thing raised two fleshless taloned arms taken from bone boxes, humerus, ulna radius, clacking carpals, and those sharpened phalanges. The angel of memory.
The jar angel rolled on its round base, oscillate-rocking forward. It punched again and killed again and whit a tiny incline of the sky head opened its lid. A dandy man froze. He was motionless, then not there at all, and Billy saw more meat shreds in the jar.
And that’s two among many. I mean, there’s an iPod Classic that acts as a magic protector. You feed it music, it sings the songs in a child-like voice and you turn it up when you’re scared and it gets you the hell out of there. There’s a man who burns alive and his ashes are gathered and he’s turned into ink so he may live again through words. I mean, there’s just so much originality within the story that if for nothing else, one should read it for that originality. It makes my own ideas seem so plain.
Yet, it’s that imagination that gets Kraken into trouble. While it can be wild and odd and out of this world, it also has to make sense and not pass into the realm of ridiculousness. Kraken suffers from having too much happen in the wrong way. The half-assed magical police trio—and I’m gonna hammer on them because I really couldn’t stand them—have the ingredients of sass and and the smarts to work, but they became extraneous annoyances that somehow survived the whole revision process even with everything else that was going on. I mean, the Kraken god is in danger of burning to bring on the apocalypse and the sea has decided to take sides, and Billy’s about to die from being Star Trek beamed and we have to deal with the fucking police boss handcuffing our hero because someone has to take him in? I give two shits about the force and the force seems to give two shits about themselves. I’m so sick of the police having to “take somebody in because that’s their job.” They’re magical police. They understand the things that go bump in the night, so the idea that they’re clinging to some reality of what they know doesn’t work. Half the time, they couldn’t keep track of each other so when they do end up being in the same room together they spend half the page going through the “hey, where have you been?” routine. They pulled away from characters I did care about so much that I was tempted to skim—skim! I never skim!—their sections just to get back to what I actually cared about. Even if the point of them was to introduce the evil-doer in their midst, it was poorly done. I caught onto it due to the fact that everyone was like, “hey, where’s our other buddy that we do all this policing with? He’s oddly absent. Like a lot. Hmm, I wonder why? And he’s an expert in occults? Well, I’ll be.” I guess they’re British so it would be more like “Well, bloody hell.”
C’mon. If the author can imagine a farm where guns are grown and hatched like chickens, he can imagine a better way to introduce the bad guy without the head-banging idiocy of the FSRC (Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes Unit).
In a novel with so much happening, it was an unfortunate consequence that the action sometimes (more often than I liked) happened in the wrong place. We had a lot of it—from people shooting Star Trek modified phasers to magical paper airplanes—but the action that really mattered, like the discovery of important information, or for mourning of a deceased character, got shuffled in favor of the next act or the new weird thing that was being introduced. At times, I couldn’t remember how a character knew a certain bit of information even though it had been one-sentenced explained the chapter before. Pages were dedicated to detailing the setting, something I really didn’t need—don’t worry, I bought the magical weirdness of London’s underbelly when the Kraken cult was introduced.
Conversations got stilted. Too much was implied through looks or glances or with an ellipsis, so much that I wasn’t picking up on what exactly was supposed to be being implied. That feeling again, like God (or the Kraken, in this case) is speaking and I just don’t know enough to get it. At first I thought I was being a bad reader. Then I thought it might be an American reader/British writer disconnect. Yet, when we had a slow moment where two characters actually spoke and made sense, I was engaged in the story, sucked in so much that I could smell the sea salt and see the colors, and realized that some of the problem was that the writing needed to take the time to relish in the world that had been built—in letting go of some of that creativeness and save it for a different story, in taking time to at least sniff the flowers. I love meeting the next bizarre character as much as the next reader, but this isn’t Tinder, and I’m in this for the arc of a 500+ word story. Give me a little bit more of Dane. Give me more Marge. And for the Kraken’s squididy self, don’t have the police come to save the day at the last minute.