Yes, I’ve just read another of China Miéville’s book, this one entitled The Kraken, in which the legendary sea monster the kraken is a giant squid, namely one that is preserved in a glass tank in London’s Natural History Museum and Darwin Centre, both real places about which the author has chosen to spin fantasy. This book is so complicated, so involved, with so many different characters and so many various changes of direction in the plot and the nefarious fictional plots some of the villains dream up, that it is hard to center a discussion on any one aspect of the story.
The main protagonist, Billy Harrow, works at the Darwin Centre as the person who has been responsible for preserving the giant squid in its tank, and he has also had the job of acting as tour guide for some of the tours of the center; the main spectacle that many of his patrons come to see, impatiently waiting through the other items of the tour, is, of course, the squid. So imagine Billy’s surprise when one day he leads the tour group in only to find that the squid is missing! Someone has purloined something from under his care, and he himself becomes one of the suspects.
Little by little, various “facts” come to light, such as that there is a private society, a religious group, which worships the squid, and one of Billy’s fellow employees turns out to be a follower. As the two of them team up together as at first unwilling companions and gradually loyal friends, they discover together the seamy side of London’s magical world, and do battle with many different villains with many different agendas, but all of them seeming to have to do something with the squid. There is even a special police squad devoted to policing the magical world and keeping its denizens in a kind of order, and Billy and his friend must not only hide from and try to outwit the villains, but also hide from and outwit the special police squad, which suspects them of having taken the squid.
London itself is a character in this book, and supports many different kinds of “knacking,” or witchery. There are those who hunt down others like Billy and his friend Dane, there are key villains like the Tattoo, a face inked on a man’s back, who not only controls the man but controls a criminal empire of such subordinates as people half-made into devices, and gunfarmers, whose bullets when wedged in flesh grow little guns, like maggot eggs. Then, there’s Grisamentum, a villain supposedly dead, who yet lives on in his employee’s fervor and comes back to life in odd ways which I won’t ruin the surprise by describing. There are familiars who go on strike and refuse to work, memory angels in the museums and libraries who defend the magic stores therein, and many twists and turns of loyalties and subplots to keep the avid reader busy.
So complex is this book that I feel I should stop reviewing it at this point, and leave you to follow up on it for yourself, only making the further remark that no one in the book with the exception of Billy’s non-knacking friend Leon, who meets with a sad end, is who or what they first seem, not even Billy, who is surprised to discover some odd and totally unexpected talents in himself as he is exposed more and more to the magical world. Let’s leave it at this: this book celebrates cityscape, London’s in particular, and yet does so by exploring it as a magical land full of strange omissions, missions, and contradictions. It’s one of the books I had intended to offer as a Halloween treat, only I had problems getting a copy of it to finish reading at that time. Suffice it to say that there are campy comical passages which will simultaneously chill your blood and make you laugh aloud with the shiver, while also requiring a careful attention to your own particular memory angel in order to keep track of what’s happening. So read this book, won’t you, and enjoy yet another of this phenomenal author’s gifted output: I can promise you won’t regret taking the time to peruse this exploration of godhood, the end of time, schemes, dreams, and patched-together tactics, and the joyous good humor behind it all, which drops both dated and more contemporary references side by side, in a romp through what could be London’s magical history, if anyone had been keeping track.