#CBR4 Maneuver #12 – Kraken

Target: China Miéville’s Kraken: An Anatomy

Profile: Speculative Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Metafantasy

Summary: From the Back Cover, “Deep in the research wing of London’s Natural History Museum is a prize specimen, something that comes along much less often than once in a lifetime: a perfect, and perfectly preserved, giant squid.  But what does it mean when this creature – the kraken – suddenly and impossibly disappears?  For curator Billy Harrow it’s the start of a headlong pitch into a London awash in secret currents of myth and magic – a weird metropolis where competing cults, cops and criminals, wizards and assassins, are locked in a war with unimaginable consequences.  For the magnificent missing sea beast may be more than just a biological rarity.  There are those who are sure it’s a god.  A god that someone is hoping will end the world.”

After Action Report:

If Perdido Street Station was an angry letter from Miéville to the world, reminding us that fantasy didn’t have to be simple or stupid, Kraken is his love letter to his geeky fans.  The book is chockablock with references to the best cult science fiction, fantasy and pop culture memes that make up the vocabulary of nerds everywhere.  What is amazing is that even though Kraken isn’t overtly trying to be one of Miéville’s smart novels, it is still an incredibly witty approach to urban fantasy that anyone will appreciate.  It’s just that geeks will get it a little better.

The story principally follows Billy Harrow, the man who bottled the giant squid.  When it goes missing, he suddenly becomes a person of interest to nearly every supernatural force in London.  When those forces kill his friend, Leon, and kidnap him from under the noses of Scotland Yard’s anti-cult squad, he is forced to go on the run with an enforcer of the Kraken Cult.  We also get to follow Collingswood, a punky cop mage with a foul mouth and a quirky sense of humor, and Marge, the girlfriend of Leon, desperately searching for her missing lover and baring that, a way into the shadowy London he has disappeared into.

As always, the silent star of the book is the city.  Like Jim Butcher’s magical version of Chicago, Miéville’s London is a fantastical playground for anyone who’s ever seen magic in the pattern of a stained glass window or the mutterings of a hooded man on a street corner.  From the Londonmancers, who channel the city to see the future, to the mystical street gangs led by cults of Chaos Nazis, Gunfarmers and reality-smiths, to the United Magical Assistants union, led by the rebellious spirit of an Egyptian burial fetish, Miéville never stops bringing new life to his chosen genre.  There are wizards, inspired by Doctor Who and Star Trek, roaming with sonic screwdrivers and working phasers, and ghostly police men created from burned copies of Life on Mars DVDs.  It’s a fabulous playground, which of course makes you all the more invested in the effort to avert the apocalypse.

Under all the glitter of this fantastical London, is a well crafted mystery.  Miéville creates a convoluted web of forces which Billy is forced to navigate with only a hint of a map.  As a muggle among wizards, Billy is the perfect person to follow as he learns the darker secrets of his city.  Even after he becomes vested with power, we can still see the world through the eyes of Marge, a woman with no magical ability at all, but someone who is passionately dedicated to finding out the truth.  Every chapter peels a layer off the mystery, but leaves just as many questions unanswered.

The strength of the mystery storyline is a bit of a surprise given how much of the book is dedicated to the fantastic imagery of London.  Some of that comes from the strength of the supporting cast.  Both the people that Billy encounters and allies with, and the other two PoV characters are very strong.  Collingswood is a fabulous personality.  Her sarcasm and twisted humor bring a very different flavor to her segments.  Marge is easily my favorite character because of her quiet perseverance in the background in spite of the danger of the magical unknown.  More so than Billy, she is our ‘normal person’ sympathetic perspective and she shines in the role.

Ultimately, Kraken is a tribute, or perhaps a dedication, to the fanbase that has grown around Miéville’s body of work.  This is a book that has been aimed carefully at people who enjoy not only Miéville’s style, but the genres he has associated himself with and the cultural niche he has created.  While being a geek or a nerd is often equated with being smart, the majority of literature targeted at those subcultures isn’t known for being good in the same way that Dostoyevsky, Beckett or Woolf are.  Fantasy literature is rarely considered to be good or intelligent.  Miéville has attempted to change that through his novels, crafting stories that challenge as much as they delight.  Kraken is exemplar of this, in that it is a novel of memes and in-jokes, but is still a strong, compelling story.

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Posted on April 8, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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