“The Kraken”–The overflow of the gratuitous magical, and its redress

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.

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6 responses to ““The Kraken”–The overflow of the gratuitous magical, and its redress

  1. You seem quite taken with Mr Mieville’s work. A worthy suggestion of Ste J I presume?
    It is the sort of story you can enjoy on its own, or does it expect a bit of ‘in-the-know’ from the reader to fully savour it?

    • Hi, DJ! Great to hear from you, after a long while. I am very taken with Mieville’s work, and think he is one of the best contemporary writers I’ve read, certainly one of the best fantasy writers. But no, Ste J didn’t recommend him, it’s rather the other way round–I’m convincing him to pick up something by Mieville. The first book I read by Mieville was “The City and the City,” which was recommended to me by own of my Canadian friends who was also the supervisor for my thesis. That book had fantastic elements, but it was more like a suspense or mystery novel, set in a fictional scene somewhat like the Balkans. But when you read one Mieville, you tend to get hooked. As to whether you need to be “in-the-know” or not, while Mieville reprocesses a lot of scientific and historical and natural history information, he doesn’t assume that you are erudite, but takes you along with him by fictionalizing the items he selects in a fantastic way. It’s hard to explain, but easy to get hooked on. Give him a read: “The Kraken” is probably the lightest of what he’s written, though I have still 3 books of his output to cover, and so cannot speak about them yet. And let us know what you’re doing–you’ve been silent for so long!

  2. This sounds like a blast! Just from reading your review I had so many thoughts of other books that I have read that had the same things in but seem less intricate compared to all that is going on.

    I have decided that I need to get some Miéville STAT! Or at least add one to my Christmas list. I always love your passion for the written word but you are certainly pushing me to pick up this guy and I can’t wait to get involved…in fact should I finish my book latest book for Thursday (doable) , I am going to Nottingham (probable) and will get myself a treat for all my hard work being awesome.

    • Hi, Ste J! Of the several Mievilles I have read, “The Kraken” is the most fun, even though it too has serious overtones from moment to moment. He’s clearly playing around here, and the magicky elements are in the forefront. Have a go, I think you’ll really enjoy him. And yes, you are awesome, but you do make it seem easy, not like the hard work you claim! Give it to yourself as an early Noel gift (and as my early Noel gift, please tell me how you get your computer to put the accent over the “e” in Mieville and how I umlaut the word “Noel”–mine will only do it in the posts, not in the comments, at least not as far as I know).

  3. To é, press ctrl and alt together and then press the ‘e’ so you are pressing all three together as for the umlaut, go onto your start menu ( I am assuming you are on windows and type character map into the search bar and you have the whole caboodle of accents.

    I am definitely going to get that book now, or whatever book is on the shelves at the shop, it will be my treat after starting and finishing my Christmas shopping, I may get a mulled wine as well if I can to make me it real festive.

    • Thanks heaps for the accent instructions. If you look like you might buy a book on Amazon.com (Amazon.uk may be the same), they will sometimes give a “read some of this book” prompt so that you can read it before you buy it. Then, If you didn’t want to buy it from Amazon.uk, you could toddle on around the corner to Nottingham and buy it there. Anyway, enjoy your mulled wine and have a little BEFORE the Christmas shopping (unless you’re driving). It helps a lot, believe me you!

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