Archives for posts with tag: gods

KrakenChina 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?

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He heard a voice, the voice of the buffalo man, calling to him on the wind, telling him who the skulls belonged to…

The tower began to tumble, and the biggest bird, its eyes the blinding blue-white of forked lightning, plummeted down toward him in a rush of thunder, and Shadow was falling, tumbling down the tower of skulls…

I’d wanted to read this for such a long time. Neil Gaiman has garnered a lot of praise for being macabre, funny and truly unique. And American Gods, as my particular Gaiman choice, is a fantasy steeped in mythology but still grounded in the real world. It sounded like a combination of everything that I love. And I wasn’t disappointed. Gaiman has created a soulful, ferocious novel that fans of fantasy will love.

The premise of American Gods is that gods (and piskies and jinn, among other supernatural creatures) exist in physical form all over America. They’ve been brought into being by immigrants who believed in their old world gods so much that when they came to America they brought the gods with them. Thor, Loki, Anubis, Thoth and more are all alive, living off people’s belief in them. But people don’t believe like they used to. Now they worship new gods; gods of television, media, and technology. There is a war brewing between the old gods and the new. The old are fighting for relevance in an age largely devoid of belief; no one makes sacrifices in their names or maintains altars to them anymore. While the new gods know they lack any history or culture. As easily as they outstripped the old gods in power their power could be usurped by something newer, something more exciting.

Against that background ex-convict Shadow is offered the job of bodyguard to the mysterious Mr Wednesday. Shadow follows Wednesday as he gathers together the ancient gods of America to recruit them for the coming war with the new gods. Wednesday believes war is inevitable and in order to gain the advantage the ancients must strike first. The gods are larger than life, and grand ideas like the American dream and mortality are tackled, but the focus is on Shadow’s journey, from the ordinary world to a world populated by gods and folkloric inventions. It’s Shadow’s perspective as a human amongst gods that lends poignancy and believability to Gaiman’s outlandish tale.

American Gods is a literally mythic novel. Gaiman has mined Norse, Native American, ancient Egyptian, West African and Slavic myths. The main storyline is intersected with vignettes that recount stories of gods; some in their homeland, some of their present lives in America, and others of how they found their way to America. Many stories have seemingly nothing to do with the larger plot, but the mythology enriches American Gods with gorgeous layers of meaning. Every time a new name was mentioned I felt like running to find out exactly which god they were in case their myths would expand on the character in the book. It’s the kind of book that rewards looking deeper, a book that you can reread and find something new, a book that stays with you.

As I read the start I thought, this is so wondrously imaginative but very weird. Where is this all going? But I became hypnotised by the stories and characters and the writing. And then it came together for me. The vignettes, asides and dreams are all very bizarre and tortuous but when taken as a whole American Gods has its own internal logic and a plot that really does make sense. Parts that seem to completely diverge from the central story appear again later, it all connects. I was distracted by the strangeness at first but despite first impressions it’s very tightly plotted in addition to being a terrifyingly beautiful chimera of a book.