China Miéville seems to be the reigning king of punky, gritty, urban fantasy. He’s critically acclaimed and pretty prolific. So I felt compelled to sample something of Miéville’s and Kraken caught my eye. I’d heard The City and the City is great but I thought I’d give the thrilling audacity of Kraken a go instead.
Kraken is set in a London where on the surface everything is ordinary, exactly like the London we know, but beneath there is a whole class of people who have knowledge of the occult. Some only inhabit this underworld but many possess what Miéville calls knacks (supernatural powers or abilities). Within alternate London, a preserved giant squid goes missing from a tank at the Natural History Museum and Billy Harrow, the museum curator responsible for preserving the squid, gets caught up in the unexplained and unnerving crime. The missing squid leads to Billy working with a special division of the police who deal with supernatural crimes (complete with a surly witch constable), then he gets swept up with the Church of God Kraken, a religion where giant squids are worshipped as god and heaven is deep beneath the sea. According to Church scripture the disappearance of the squid signifies the end of the world is fast approaching. And the rest of the occult underworld is in agreement. But just who is responsible for stealing the squid and triggering the apocalypse?
As Billy tries to uncover the criminals and stop them he discovers occult gangsters with dangerous powers (a criminarch going by the name the Tattoo takes the form of a magicked tattoo on the back of a man) and takes on shadowy figures returned from the grave (a dead mage called Grisamentum). There’s teleportation (and the philosophy and morality behind it), familiars unionising and going on strike, Ancient Egyptian myth, and people being folded like origami. Then there is the very core of Kraken – London as a living, breathing entity. London is the lifeblood of the story. The presence of a unique breed of mage/soothsayer called the Londonmancers influences so much of Kraken. The power of London is at their disposal. They can mould the city into anything, send messages through the lampposts, and glean the future from its guts.
Billy is perfect as the unlikely hero and accidental prophet. He’s new to supernatural London and completely out of his depth, making him a relatable touchstone and guide throughout the chaos. Billy’s friendship and alliance with Church of God Kraken member Dane Parnell is genuine and touching, as is Dane’s religious turmoil, as he struggles to align his actions with his beliefs.
Kraken has attitude galore. It’s an exuberant, edgy, hedonistic melding of disparate elements. Miéville is seen as the poster author for the New Weird (it’s a dark, urban, experimental new direction for fantasy writing). It’s a malleable definition, really barely a definition at all, but if this is New Weird then I’m on board. I never thought something that sounded so imposing and momentous could be this much fun. Kraken is pulsing with real pop culture references, right alongside invented magical techniques and technical terms that sound completely real (‘infolding and weightomancy’). The almost scholarly attention to detail manages to pull off being unabashedly dorky, yet undeniably cool.
Miéville’s inventiveness is dazzling. You need to appreciate the weird and bizarre and be ready for anything. Among all the apocalypse-laden novels his has to be the most unorthodox. Through the fantastic Miéville explores philosophy, belief and religion in a completely new way. Who says you can’t be deep while still having fun?