Review of KRAKEN by China Mieville
Del Rey, June 2010
Billy Harrow is a nerd. His two claims to fame: that he is the world's first test-tube baby, and that he was responsible for preserving the giant squid in the museum where he works. The first of these is a story meant to impress women. The second is true although Billy was never sure why he suddenly developed the ability to preserve squid better than anyone else. Still, when the giant squid vanishes from the museum, a special branch of the London police take a real interest in Billy.
Beneath the London that tourists and ordinary residents see is a deeper, darker London. In this London, criminal masterminds elbow for position with ancient gods, priests of weird religions, and people with a knack--a magical ability. Billy is kidnapped by a distressingly evil man, trying to explain himself to a talking tattoo, and then on the run with the chief enforcer for a religion that believes squids are gods and that Billy, as the preserver of a giant squid, is a prophet. The strangest thing is, everything changed when the squid vanished. Instead of vague forecasts of a some-day doomsday, London's prophets and fortune-tellers see a future that is not only erased, but that erases the present and past as well. And it seems that it's up to Billy, along with his squid-assassin-friend Dane, the snark-tongued but sexy cop Collingswood, and Billy's late friend's girlfriend, Marge to bring the future back. The worst part is, none of them can think of anyone who really wants to destroy the future, let alone the past. And without determining a motive, finding the truth is impossible.
Author China Mieville (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of speculative fiction by Mieville) creates a fascinating universe in his dark and myth-ridden London. Although Billy Harrow and Marge make fine "everyman" heroes, Mieville really excels with his villains. The tattoo--a soul trapped in the skin of another man who eventually takes control of that man. The long-dead but possibly still dangerous Grisamentum. And the implacably cruel yet ever-pleasant Goss and Subby are all chilling. Labor-organizer for familiars, golems, and overused software agents, Wati provides a bit of light to a dark story--but he has his own tragic elements.
Mieville's writing isn't for everyone. KRAKEN--the novel has layers and dimension. Reading this book takes effort, work on the part of the reader as well as the author. He does a good job, though, keeping the reader grounded in the story (although we, like Billy and Marge are often in the dark about what is really going on in Mieville's strange universe), and helping us keep the large number of characters straight.
Like much of the best in fiction, KRAKEN makes the reader think, provides an alternative view of the world through story. Today, with unionism under assault in the US, the story of Wati and his unionized pigeons and cats, carries a bit of emotional weight. So to does that throw-away conversation between Collingswood and Vardy about the role of faith. Mieville layers his plants, misdirecting the reader by misdirecting his protagonists, yet giving us subtle clues about the nature of the universe.
KRAKEN is a thoughtful, thought-provoking, disturbing and ultimately uplifting novel. I'm happy to recommend it.
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