Kraken, by China Miéville

Last year, finally picked up my first China Miéville book, The City and The City, and was blown away by the story and world building that set the story in such an interesting location. At the same time, I’d picked up his latest book, Kraken, which had promptly been picked up by my girlfriend, who’s urged me to read it since. Kraken turns out to have been a very different book from Miéville’s prior work, and was one that sucked me in with his elegant prose and fascinating take on an alternate, hidden London.

Kraken opens with the theft of a museum specimen, a Giant Squid, from London’s Natural History Museum, pulling Billy Harrow into a hidden and dangerous world of magic, cults, special police units and evil, all the while he’s chased down by several groups, all with different intentions towards him. Approached by a police force that specializes in the paranormal and cults, Harrow goes on the run, sees his best friend eaten by a creepy pair of characters known as Goss and Stubby, before rescued by Dane, one of the museum’s security guards, and a member of a Kraken cult. And that’s just in the first 50 pages. The story continues onwards, and we dive deeper down the rabbit’s hole into a brilliant, wonderful London that is both vibrant and menacing.

Kraken is a rich, dense read, and finishing it left me wondering what I might have missed as I read through it, and I suspect that it’s one of the novels that I’ll have to reread somewhere down the line to take it all in again. In a very strange way, the book reminded me most of Neil Gaiman’s fantastic novel, American Gods, dealing with some very similar issues, but with a similar environment surrounding the characters throughout the story.

This book is all about faith: faith in wonderfully fractured world, where belief in the unbelievable brings out some interesting things. Throughout the story, the center plot point is the stolen Kraken, sought by a number of people: the Krakenists who want to keep their sacred object safe, or properly destroyed, a magician seeking to hold onto his own immortality and power, with various story lines weaving in and out in a complicated manner. The story lags through the middle, but it’s not until the end that the really interesting stuff happens: magic and faith in this setting are essentially products of people’s actions: understanding the significance of what you’ve done is just as important as what you’re trying to do. It’s difficult to explain without ruining several plot points, but the ending left me rather breathless.

In addition to the dense core story that Miéville has set up, he’s put together a spectacular London that pulls in elements from all types of mythology , the fantastic and even things like Star Trek. Several perspectives follow the action, taking a number of characters through a number of locations throughout the city: hidden streets and pubs, places erased from London’s memory, all the while coming across a series of weirder and more fascinating characters. Frequently, I thought that Miéville just unleashed his imagination on the page, and there’s parts where the book could be slimmed down, straightened out a bit, but I also can’t help but think that that would take out some of the fun in the story and the journey that we’re taken through. Kraken, while it has its flaws, is a fantastic book, in every sense of the word.

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4 thoughts on “Kraken, by China Miéville

  1. In my opinion Mieville has great ideas but has problem with creating good story and with structure of novels (short stories are much better in my opinion). How is with that in Kraken in your opinion?
    Never less still Mieville is interesting author.
    I must admit that I haven’t read Kraken – I’m writing on the base previous books by Mieville.

    • That tracks with what I came up with. I think io9 said roughly the same thing – the book would have been better as a series of short stories or something, but the overall narrative holds up decently. I loved The City and The City, and I think that his story as a whole was solid, but I haven’t read anything else by him.

  2. Shifting (transgression? I don’t know English term but I think you know what I’m writing about) in The City and The City was a great idea, but unfortunately not very likely. I don’t think it is possible to have such a selective perception. Second defect is main plot, especially disappointing in the end.

    • Well, when it comes to the split in realities, I never saw that as anything that’s likely or realistic, but that’s not really required for the story in this instance: what was more important, I think, was that it was treated as a major element of the world, something that’s akin to figuring in gravity. This isn’t a story where the actual means were important, it’s the impact of the phenomenon that was important. Mieville’s understanding of this is what sets him apart in my mind. This is where fiction really excels – taking a fictional concept and seeing what happens around it : this was the greatest strength of The City and The City. To another excent, Kraken does the same thing.

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