Kraken by China Mieville (a review by Charlotte)

From the very first instant of encounter, from just its purple, tentacular beauty, Kraken is an intense experience. I fancy it would stand out even in the Vatican Library, the Library of Alexandria, and probably also the library of Lord Dream of the Endless. Find it, glowing, between the Necronomicon and the Gospel of Jesus. More concisely, it’s pretty. Pretty pretty pretty. Cold shower pretty.

The curtains rise with the spotlight on Billy Harrow, curator and specimen preserver extraordinaire, roped in to give a tour, the centrepiece of which is a magnificent Architeuthis, a giant squid. It is a remarkable specimen, most especially, as Billy, having worked on the process, knows, for its virtually flawless preservation. It also happens, contrary to all logic and laws of nature, to have utterly vanished.

For a chapter you get the sense of being in the middle of nothing more peculiar than a mystery thriller that is perhaps a shade eerier than it has any right to be, but before you start feeling secure, Kraken explodes out around our intrepid hero and starts to get seriously, well, weird. In short order, we meet a cast of thousands, ranging from supernatural crimelords, their hired brains and their hired brawn, to the Met’s supernatural squad, to a Marxist shabti who traded toiling for some forgotten pharaoh in the Field of Reeds for organising a union strike of magical assistants. Those that aren’t after the Architeuthis (and by extension, Billy) for whatever nefarious reason are nonetheless dragged into the squiddy fray.

The impossible squid/no squid is just the first of the breakneck inversions that riddle the plot and are played out by a cast of characters as myriad and varied as that of the real London. Inevitably, this means you’ll occasionally feel your favourite ideas and characters won’t have the playing time you would have liked. Above all, Officer Collingswood needs her own book. It could consist purely of her hurling ever more inventive profanities at the reader and I would still sell my brother to pay for it.

Another aspect of this is that the ending comes as something of an anticlimax, with all the grand plans failing and a simpler, barely foreshadowed course of action saving the day. While I was perverse enough to enjoy what happened, there was a definite blink-and-you-miss-it quality to proceedings. Really, though, I doubt anyone who gets within the last quarter of Kraken will still be reading for the conclusion – the journey there is too interesting. And more apocalypses need to be averted through wordplay and logical argument, if only to screw with the Hollywood special effects departments.

Plot and characterisation and all that shit aside, my favourite thing about Kraken is that China Miéville is the biggest fanboy of all time. The very words bubble with superhuman enthusiasm, in their Latinate polysyllabicism, their Hellenic technicality, their Anglo-Saxon bluntness that comes both as gallows humour and a punch to the guts. In practice, those who go into raptures over the man’s vocabulary are matched by those who just wish he’d get to the bloody point, but damn it’s a vocabulary.

The core of the novel is a spirit of I Think This Is Cool, Let Me Show You which is infectious and endearing. And, William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Hog’ turned on its head (Cutest. Demonpig. Ever.) and run through I Can Haz Cheezburger? Literature has been working towards that moment since the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In conclusion, I can only advise most strongly that if you read only one New Weird- apocalyptic-detective-weird -political-thriller-mystery novel this year, you should make it Kraken. Or at least tell me which other one you find.

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