Kraken, by China Miéville

How do you steal a giant squid from the British Museum? Why would anyone bother? How do you locate said creature when you’re being pursued by the acolytes of a religious cult that worships the giant squid as its god and regards you as its prophet, able to interpret the imagery of mystical pelagic dream visions?  Who stole the squid? Was it The Tattoo (he’s a living tattoo, a gangland boss who was transferred magically to the back of a hapless punk)? Or was it the cult abducting its primum mobile for arcane religious reasons? Perhaps it was the Londonmancers, the occult priesthood that has been listening to the capital’s vibrations and reading its hidden symbols ever since the city had come into being. Or was it Grisamentum, shadowy mage and enemy of The Tattoo, who should be dead but seems to be the presence behind certain weird goings-on?

These are some of the problems besetting Billy Harrow, the British Museum curator and authority on Architeuthis whose fate it is to be drawn into a parallel London, unseen and unsuspected by most citizens, of magic and angels and a mad, malevolent cavalcade of cults and thaumaturgical entities.

Add to all this the complications of being surveilled by a secret department of the Metropolitan Police dedicated to investigating occult crimes, trying to find the girlfriend of his friend Leon (poor chap, he gets folded into nothingness and consumed by Goss and Subby, centuries-old and utterly evil, ultimate killers with wicked powers, who work for The Tattoo in his quest to track down the missing squid) and having to work out which of the multiple possible Apocalypses in the air is destined to be the one that comes true and how the squid is implicated,  and Billy has more than enough to deal with in this terrible new reality that he didn’t ask for. And if all this were not enough, he is being pursued by armies of eldritch hired thugs and bizarre adversaries magicked into being to stop him. Fortunately he has some unique compadres in the shape of Dane, a member of the squid church that goes renegade; Wati, a spirit who led the first workers’ uprising in history (ancient Egypt, mannequins imbued with a slave consciousness designed to accompany the dead to the other world and do their bidding, Wati as the Spartacus figure in the situation) and is leading a strike by the Union of Magicked Assistants, familiars of every kind who are withdrawing their labour in a struggle for better conditions; and the spirit of the sea, that floods the underground waterways of London at opportune moments.

Kraken is a complicated, plot-driven work of Urban Fantasy that plays with elements of satire and comedy, psychogeography, history, SF and ghost stories (references to Ballard, Star Trek, Lovecraft), questions our perception of time and space and plunges the reader into ingenious horrors and arcane musings on the irrational. Miéville’s imagination waxes productive in creating startling images and inventively conceived characters that linger in the mind’s eye long after reading.  He uses the language of the street, the cadences of everyday discourse, focalised through the blended viewpoints of the omniscient narrative voice and the perspectives of the characters. This imbues the prose with energy though it occasionally borders on impenetrability when Miéville ascends to giddy levels of abstraction in a Pynchon-influenced style (he acknowledges Gravity’s Rainbow as a favourite work) in attempting to describe the indescribable. Then he is forced to come at his point slantwise, writing around it yet not quite communicating the ineffable. But his effort is commendable, and I wish more fantasy writing showed a comparable ambition and intellectual scope.

The central theme is faith, its excesses, its potential for good, its illuminatory possibilities. The occult universe is posited as real in the book’s fictional world, and Billy learns to accept it because he is forced to. But there are things beyond human ken, nevertheless, so there is still space for a metaphysics of the gaps, an imaginative space that Dane fills with his unshakeable belief in the divinity of the squid. But his Weltanschauung is built on cultural conditioning, a total immersion in the mythology of squidism and the words of the Teuthex, the cult’s high priest, not on revelation; so the role of the Architeuthis in the machinery of creation is undefined. Miéville doesn’t provide a fixed interpretation; the ontological status of an Intelligent Designer is left moot.

If you’re looking for some Urban Fantasy that has more in common with Umberto Eco and Will Self than with Stephanie Meyer then Kraken would be a great tale to start with.

About misterdzhimbo

Anarcho-hippy fantasist, poetaster, psych-blues guitar strangler, co-author of Red Phone Box, a beautifully illustrated Urban Fantasy/New Weird story cycle ( I like tea.
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