London is not only a city unknown to outsiders, it is unknown even to residents. Superficially reminiscent of his previous novel, The City And The City, in which Beszel and Ul Qoma share the same geographic but wildly divergent political space, the London of China Miéville’s Kraken is shaped not only by the powerful Londonmancers, but also the influences of various religions, cults, gangs and factions and the followers who flit between them, accumulating different faiths as though they were merit badges.
Through happenstance and misapprehension, when the giant squid he worked on mysteriously vanishes from the Natural History Museum, cephalopod specialist Billy Harrow is sucked into a world of pentacles and tentacles hidden beneath the surface of the city he thought he knew. The mystery is twofold, for not only is the theft of a dead squid incomprehensible to him, but as its tank was bigger than the doors, how was the squidnapping achieved anyhow? And why, as he walks the streets of London, is he haunted by the sound of glass scraping along pavements?
Unlike China’s Bas-Lag novels, set in an intimately created yet absolutely alien world, Kraken is more akin to the urban fantasy of Clive Barker. As the author’s own life has woven between academia, politics, travel, literature and fandom, it is no surprise that this novel features collectors of both faiths and memorabilia. Kraken invites the question, when both religious cults and fan cults gather symbols to demonstrate their devotion, focus their passions, and inspire their worship, how different are they really?
But unlike so many who blindly worship without question, the Krakenists recognise the futility of their beliefs to such an extent that when the apocalypse beckons, the stand by and observe events rather than interfering. Worship based on the awe of the Kraken is a different religion, acknowledging the indifference of an impenetrable alien mind; in the very words of the book, there is no squid pro quo.
Possibly for this reason, there are few sympathetic characters in the book, and despite all the time we spend with Billy and Marge, we never feel we truly know them, and the more interesting protagonists, Dane and Wati, are predominantly written in the second person, always seen from the outside. Unfortunately, far more insight is given into Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit operative Collingwood, so much so that you long for someone to smack the miserable bitch.
Of the opposition, Goss, his sidekick Subby and their boss, Tattoo, are equally mysterious. With only hints at their background they manage to be brutal and chilling, not so much by their extant actions, but by the level of fear they generate in the underworld. Even the aforementioned Collingwood is wary of them.
There is occasional clumsiness in the novel – the idea of creating a false apocalypse to draw the various factions into the open is facile and too swiftly arranged to ring true, given the complexity apparent elsewhere in the novel.
A more persistent frustration is that the narrative pace is constant, everyday events recounted in the same detail as the momentous turns of fate and epic confrontations between opposing factions. Perhaps, as all human events are trivial on the cosmic scale, this is intended to reflect that detachment. Conversely, a subplot involves the efforts of a familiar’s union composed of rodents, cats and pigeons to arrange a strike, organised by the effigy of a formerly dead Egyptian slave. Even without knowledge of China’s far left political leanings it may be a more valid interpretation that all moments and lives are of equal value.
The difference between the strike, giving the downtrodden familiars of London unity and a purpose, and the Tattoo’s knuckleheads, a fighting force drawn from the fractured and lost souls of the streets, is an important distinction.
In the same way that The City… was a detective novel, tracking down leads and confirming alibis, Kraken is a novel about eliminating the impossibilities of who is behind the theft of the squid, as each faction who may have engineered the acquisition of the godspawn turns out to be as much in the dark as their rivals, and with no apparent motive for the theft.
For a novel about a seagod, it is very much landlocked, and a visit to the Ambassador of the Sea does little to moisten the pages, although it is more congenial than the visit to the Ambassador of Hell in Perdido Street Station, China’s first Bas-Lag novel. The ocean is present, waiting, but as a neutral party; for the most part, it does not participate.
There are other echoes from China’s previous novels in the streets of this city, from a scene where an academic is ambushed on the grounds of his own University, to the conjuring of London’s antibodies – a physical embodiment of the city grown life of itself, a fractal of a greater whole capable of defending itself, reminiscent of the Construct Council that hid in the Griss Twist junkyard across from Perdido Street Station.
Kraken is deliberately dense with obscure language and obtuse meaning, as despite the prognostications of the Londonmancers, the future is as elusive as the motivations of the prime movers pushing towards it.
When China chooses to make something obvious and direct, he will do so; when he chooses to shroud a sentence in double meaning it’s because the world of which he writes is as opaque as the preserving liquid in the squid tank, clouded with the sloughed off cells of the vast specimen.
For all the resonances of his earlier works, this is a pleasingly different experience, and not only because a fictional website referenced in The City… www.fracturedcity.org actually exists (it links to China’s American publisher), whereas no marketing group has created www.bigsquidgone.com – yet!