[First, a thousand curses upon having to write this on a laptop. You don’t realise how much you miss the number pad until you’re trying to write about someone with an accent in their name.]
China Miéville is the current darling of fantasy, and for ruddy good reason: he makes it original, disturbing and political again, rather than an exercise in rummaging around in Tolkien’s bins and repeating tired old pseudomythology. Content aside, Miéville also has distinctive prose, which is sometimes impressive and sometimes irritating, but is always better than being bland and dreary.
Kraken is Miéville’s latest, in a rare example of my reading being up to date (look, there’re a lot of books out there, alright?), and it’s a frankly bonkers adventure through a deeply seedy magical underbelly of London. It isn’t his best book, since it lacks the intricacy of The Scar or the conceptual genius of The City and The City, but it’s highly enjoyable and full of ideas that will leave you cackling evilly.
Billy Harrow is a curator at the Natural History Museum’s new Darwin Centre. During a routine tour, he discovers the impossible theft of the museum’s prize exhibit: the carefully preserved carcass of a giant squid. Not long after that Billy’s on the run through a warped vision of London, with new factions and foes popping up at every turn.
The conceit is that not far below London’s surface seeths a world of competing supernatural cults and gangs, all with their own powers and agendas. On a fairly routine basis, somebody’s irrational eschatology declares that it’s time for the world to end, and there’s a bit of a ruck. Generally, after a spot of violence and some embarrassed chin-stroking from various prophets, things settle down. This time, though, with the squid vanished and mysterious old powers beginning to move again, the end times really are looking like the end.
This offers a brilliant opportunity for Miéville to do what he does best: make things up. Startling things. Kraken is packed with creatures, preternatural arts, mysterious organisations and all-round oddities, all of which are fitted carefully into his murky, modern mythology of London. There are ferret-worshippers, Chaos Nazis, a practitioner of quantum origami, a trade union for familiars, creatures made from leaves and rubbish and shedloads more. Like Miéville’s children’s book Un Lun Dun, it’s sometimes fantasy by pun, with surreal concepts clearly born of plays on words, such as the henchmen of one of the major villains. A few fall flat (they’re great as concepts, but as names I found ‘Londonmancers’ and ‘gunfarmers’ a bit weak), but, like an episode of Mock the Week, there’s so much being thrown at you that if one idea doesn’t stick there’ll be a bunch more along in a minute.
As some of the madder sounding cults above suggest, Kraken is unashamedly playful, to the extent of one plot twist making fun of the way language is used to construct the system of the unreal. This willingness to muck about extends to the rest of the book, too. Yes, there is horror, but there are also jokes, both by darting around in pop culture and in some of the banter between characters. It’s quite a departure from the grim tone of The City and the City, but it works well: can you imagine a book about squidnapping taking itself seriously?
This barrage of jokes and ideas is often thrilling, but sometimes the proliferation of curiosities bogs down the actual plot. By the end there are so many groups and conflicts (even accounting for all the ones that meet messy ends along the way) that the wrapping up seems perfunctory and slightly disappointing. Plenty happens, but it lacks structure, and sometimes things that should be momentous seem less developed than the sideshows.
Sadly, the same can sometimes be said for the characters. Because Miéville seems determined to show off as much of his psychotic, psychedelic London as possible, there are buckets of characters, most of whom don’t last very long, and rarely have an opportunity develop beyond a talent and an allegiance. This is a pity, because the ones who do manage to stick around are pretty decent. Billy himself is perhaps a little bland (he’s the outsider, the normal guy thrust into the middle of the mess, so this isn't a huge surprise), but some of the other major ones are impressive. The highlight is Kath Collingswood, of the Fundamentalist and Sect Related Crime Unit – the Cult Squad. She’s the police witch, a sort of cross between a bitchy schoolgirl and a hard-bitten investigator. Her development from an obnoxious background character into a major focus of drive and attitude is great fun, and it’s a pity not everyone else is drawn with such attention.
Many of the chapettes and chaps who don’t last for long can blame their briefness on Goss and Subby, who shoot straight to the top spot in the book’s impressive roster of villainy. They are a classic sinister double act – the loquacious, incomprehensible Goss and his silent child, Subby – and they are spectacularly nasty as well as curiously, unsettlingly funny. For those who’ve read Neverwhere, they’re basically Croup and Vandemaar all over again. In fact, sometimes they’re a bit too Croup and Vandemaar. I’ll tell you what, though – that’s a fight I’d like to see.
That Neverwhere comparison can go quite a lot further, actually. There are undeniable similarities: the other London, the puns, the combination of the sinister and the amusing, the elaborate amalgamation of lore and mythology. They’re both also very good. However, Kraken strikes out in a different direction: where magic in Neverwhere is based on what is old and half-forgotten, in Kraken it’s modern, often literally constructed from the detritus of the city and its culture. Rituals of summoning involve VCRs and cheap paperbacks; cultic warriors employ household produce; and there’s no need for a crystal ball when lampposts and CCTV are around. ‘She plugged in her electric pentacle’, goes one line. This modernity is followed in the politics of the other city, too: there is unionism and brute capitalism instead of monarchy and hereditary power. It’s a brilliantly constructed response to the backward gaze of a lot of fantasy.
The other major difference from Neverwhere’s London Below is that Gaiman’s undercity was very separate from ‘real’ London - Richard is ignored by his old acquaintances. Kraken’s cult-world, on the other hand, drags mundane London in: there is no escape from it. No one is safe from the machinations of unnatural powers. This gives it quite a different atmosphere, for where Neverwhere had an air of outsider otherness, Kraken has a grungy sense of brutal realism to it: anyone who’s walked past a club at kicking-out time will recognise it, whereas Neverwhere is about the things in London that we don’t notice.
Streets of London
This atmosphere is another of Kraken’s strengths. It’s finely tuned, generating a scrappy, scabby, mangy London that is recognisable, despite the magic that pulses through it. Although London is shown as a violent, hideous place, it’s also a home, urgent and alive, and it is something to be loved as well as feared.
'In a city like London...
Stop: that was an unhelpful way to think about it, because there was no city like London. That was the point.'
I’m not going to go down the over-worn ‘city as character’ route, but London is what connects the occasionally disjointed elements of the book. It’s a highly enjoyable London novel, but it’s also one that leaves me quite glad to be leaving town.