Wednesday, 2 June 2010

‘Kraken’ – China Mieville (Tor UK/Del Rey)


When you live in London it’s very easy to forget what a magical place it can be. Think about it... When you’re not in the office, you’re either commuting to it or away from it and you don’t have much of a chance to stop and take a look at where you are. When you get home after a days work (and fighting everyone else on the Underground...) the last thing you want to do is turn around and head back into the thick of it! That’s where I am right now with it all, I know that I live in an amazing city but I just can’t see the wood for all the trees that are in the way!
The thing is though, London is without a doubt a place that is brimming over with magic. Whether it’s in the bright lights of the high streets or the dark and winding alleys that branch off them it’s clear that London is a place that’s more than a little out of the ordinary. What I need then is someone who can point these things out to me while my travels take me through the more mundane parts of the city. Mike Carey is a great tour guide in this respect and Kate Griffin isn’t bad either. China Mieville took on this role once before, with ‘King Rat’, and now he’s back to show us a London the likes of which you would not believe...

If you know what signs to look out for you’ll know that London is a magical battleground where gangsters, cultists and even the police wage war to either bring about or prevent the Apocalypse. Which Apocalypse though? Your guess is as good as theirs...
This fight is about to touch the life of Billy Harrow in the worst way possible. Billy works in the Darwin Centre (at the Natural History Museum) and his guided tour comes to a juddering halt when it’s found that the Centre’s prize specimen, a giant squid, has inexplicably vanished into thin air. It’s the original ‘Locked Room’ mystery and the answer is far stranger than you’d imagine. Not only does Billy have a giant squid to find but he has to do it before past, present and future end in fire... Finding a giant squid shouldn’t be that hard. If you’re up against the likes of the Tattoo and the demonic Goss and Subby however... Well, every breath you take could be your last.

‘Kraken’ is the novel that ‘Neverwhere’ could have been if Neil Gaiman had set his inhibitions to one side and got really down and dirty. It’s a dark and deliciously brutal testament to life in London that you only catch half glimpses of out of the corner of your eye. A full on immersing of the reader into the consequences of living in a melting pot of a city where faith and belief can make anything possible. If Mieville never writes another ‘Bas-Lag’ novel but keeps coming up with stuff like this then I for one will be more than happy with that deal.



Funnily enough though, ‘Kraken’ is also the only one of Mieville’s novels that I’ve had to put down for a while before going back for another helping. While there was never any question of my finishing the book, it wasn’t one that I found myself able to devour in one sitting...

The problem here, I think, is that China loves his version of old London town just that little bit too much. On the one hand, you can clearly tell that he is having the time of his life writing in this setting and the resulting energy thrown up by this enjoyment drives the plot along at a fair old rate. On the other hand though, I felt that China perhaps fell foul (just a little bit, but enough) of wanting to indulge in his creation and pore over every detail for the benefit of the reader. This was fine up to a point (and more of that in a little bit) but when it got to the point where these explanations not only began to feel a little long winded but also got in the way of the story itself... Well, that was the point where I felt that maybe I wouldn’t be too concerned if the explanations stopped.

Having said that though, despite my feeling that things were getting long winded I found myself presented with an alternative London that was an intricate and well mapped out as the real thing. I couldn’t really complain when my journey through this London threw up such gems as the I-pod sprite (‘fighty power!’) and Collingwood’s police ‘recruits’ who are very much the sum of their parts. While the level of detail may prove an initial obstacle to the story, it’s also a real labour of love that you can’t help but dive deep into. This is particularly the case for the geeks amongst us (which must be pretty much everyone reading this I reckon!) as China goes all out to drop as many genre references into the mix as possible. It’s like looking for hidden extras on a DVD :o) Any book that can throw up a reference to ‘Lexx’ (I thought I was the only person who watched it...) gets my vote as a matter of course!

Not only does Mieville give us such a beautiful background but he also gives us some memorable characters to act out a plot that, although you think you know where it’s going, has enough twists and turns to throw up a few surprises when you’re not expecting them.
The real stars of the piece (as far as I was concerned) were the utterly insane Goss and Subby, gangland enforcers whose violence has resonated through London over the course of centuries. Mieville does really well here to keep their violent tendencies very much understated (although when it does happen it’s nasty...) preferring instead to show just how nasty these two are in the reactions of other people. It really worked for me (especially when Baron and Collingwood realise that these two villains are on the scene), I would not want to run into Goss and Subby at all!
Billy Harrow is the man upon whom the whole plot hangs and he needs to be a very strong character in order to bear such a burden. Luckily for us he is as China charts Billy’s development, from naive bystander to major player, very well. You know that Billy is up against more than he can handle but you never get the sense that he is going to crumble and leave the plot floundering in his wake. Mieville is in control the whole time and that’s pretty impressive given all the things he has going on in this book.

‘Kraken’ is a tough nut to crack initially but there’s a real gem of a book waiting for you to break through and meet it. This is my kind of urban fantasy! Highly recommended.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

8 comments:

Trevor said...

I've been wanting to read some Mieville since the release of Un Lun Dun so long ago, but I think this book could be the one that pushes me over the edge. Everything I've heard about it makes me think it's perfect for me!

Nearly cracked and bought a signed edition from FP, but I'm just a poor unemployed student. Sigh...

suneokun said...

Un Lun Dun is in my 'to read' list. I've read all three previous Mieville 'classics' before. He's always a challenging but satisfying read.

The world of Perdito Street Station, the Scar and Iron Council stands in some contrast to his London inspired works.

There's no denying his talent though.

Lisa Parkin said...

I'm not super familiar with Mieville, but this books sounds very interesting! I love fantasy novels of all kind, so this will definitely go on my reading list.

Although it's been done before, I love the idea of a regular city with hidden magical depths. The juxtaposition usually makes for a good setting.

Thanks for the review!

Lisa

Peter said...

Never read any Mieville. But I will read this when it comes out. Sounds very good.

Thanks for review, Graeme!

Jo said...

I admit, I am a huge China Mieville fan. I couldn't wait for the US edition to hit the shelves, so I treated myself to a copy of Kraken from the Book Depository UK -- got it, sat down, and started to devour it. I like what you said about comparing the story to Neverwhere -- I had that same thought! I took my time with this book because there was just so much detail, but I really loved it.

Cara said...

This is one book I'm really looking forward to reading! Thanks for a great review

Mark Lord said...

As you say I think China suffers from getting too involved in his creation at the expense of the story. I haven't read Kraken, and I am not sure I would, but recently started The City and The City and had to put it down. I thought the background of that book was interesting, but the characters were lifeless and the narrative was dull. I do worry that he lets the idea take over from the storytelling a bit too much. Un Lun Dun was good, but only really started after 35 pages!

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it