In the heart of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum lies its star attraction – a preserved giant squid. Curator Billy Harrow prepares to take another party of visitors in to see it, only to find that it has, impossibly, been stolen – even the squid’s tank has disappeared. Subsequently, Bily is drawn into a world of feuding cults, where he discovers that some believe the giant squid to be a god, that magic works, and that the end of the world really could be nigh.
After the tight focus of The City & the City, China Miéville returns with something very different: the sprawling, restless imagination that characterised his Bas-Lag novels is back, this time applied to a contemporary London setting. As you may expect, then, Kraken is fizzing over with fantasy notions: talking tattoos, origami that works on more than just paper, unionised magical familiars, to name but three. The whole foundation of the magic in this novel involves persuading reality to take on certain shapes by finding similarities (however tenuous) between things – or, if you believe it, maybe you can turn it into truth. One of the greatest delights of reading Kraken lies in seeing all the different ways Miéville deploys this.
But there’s more going on here than a story about a giant squid god. Well, actually, there is and there isn’t. I’ve read a couple of interviews with Miéville in which he advocates literalism in fantasy – by all means make your monster a metaphor if you wish, but let it be a monster first and foremost – and I think he’s woven that idea right into the fabric of this novel. The fantastic happenings might be based on metaphors at root, but even the most outlandish of them are still real in the world of the book. ‘How was you going to deal with that, Billy?’ asks one character when Billy has encountered the talking gangster tattoo. ‘How you going to get the police to deal with that?’ (96) In other words: this is beyond what you know, and the ways you know can’t help, so face up to it. Miéville lends a perhaps surprising amount of gravitas to even some of the most comical fantasy ideas in Kraken.
Which is not to suggest that there’s no fun to be had; on the contrary, there’s a great sense of playfulness mixed in with the seriousness – but the two can’t always be separated out with ease; the idea of familiars being politically aware and going on strike, for example, made me smile even as it had important consequences in the story. I particularly enjoyed some of the dialogue in Kraken – the banter between Baron and Collingswood, two coppers from the specialist cult squad; and the words of the whimsical-but-dangerous Goss, who, along with his boy, Subby, is after Billy.
There is much to enjoy in Kraken, then, but I can’t shake the feeling that, beneath all the pizazz of the fantasy, is a fairly ordinary chase/detection plot – and that is what’s stopping me from being fully enthusiastic about the novel. But I think it would do Kraken a disservice to end this review on a sour note, because to do so would be to understate just how enjoyable a read it is; this may not be Miéville’s very best, but it’s good all the same – and a good Miéville book is always worth reading. Kraken is no exception.