Monday, July 18, 2011

Kraken, by China Mieville

Kraken, by China Miéville.  Del Rey Books, 2010.  509 pp.  978-0-345-49750-5.

... in which a missing giant squid comes close to causing the end of the world.

For those of you not familiar with China Miéville, it's important to remember that this guy is basically known for writing weird fiction.  So if you don't have a decently high tolerance for weird fiction, this is probably not the author for you.

At its heart, Kraken is a story of faith.  The book opens with Billy Harrow, a curator at London's Natural History Museum, giving a tour of the museum's specimen rooms.  The most interesting specimen in the museum's collection is the body of a giant squid (kraken), preserved in a large glass tank.  When Billy brings the tour group into the squid room, however, the squid and its tank are missing, with no evidence to explain who took it or how they got it out without anyone noticing.  From this point on, Billy finds himself pulled into a conflict in a hidden underworld of London, an underworld involving magic, myths, cults and gods.  At the center of this conflict are four groups: the Church of the God Kraken, the followers of crime lord Grisamentum, the followers of the crime lord known as the Tattoo, and the Londonmancers.  For various reasons, each of these groups want to find the missing squid, because the kraken might have the powers of a god, and it might be the key to ending (or saving) the world, and everyone thinks that Billy is some kind of prophet for the kraken god..

Thematically, this is a fascinating book.  The dominant theme is the power of belief... belief in a religion, belief in science, belief in a cult.  Pretty much any type of cult that you can think of is represented at one point or another in the book.  People worship the giant squid, they worship ferrets, they worship pretty much anything.  Religious zealots are represented, the moderately religious are represented, and so are the atheists, as their belief in nothing can be just as dogmatic and zealous as the followers of a cult or religion.  Similar to the gods of American Gods, people or symbols or whatever are granted power based on the strength of their followers' belief.  The power of belief is measured both in terms of the collective strength of a particular religion/cult/whatever, and in the level of happiness that an individual derives from their belief.  I found the discussion of changing beliefs and how beliefs gain traction to be the most interesting part of the story. 

As for the plot itself, this is a book where the action starts and really doesn't let up until the very end.  It's probably because it's got a decently large cast of characters, each involved in their own little branch of the action.  The plot is engaging, certainly making you want to know what happens next.  The level of suspense throughout the book is pretty high, because it's clear from pretty early on that the characters are racing to prevent the end of the world, to be caused by some cult apocalypse that is clear to no one.  All of the different groups are brought together in a satisfying way, and the ending has a twist that I didn't see coming (though in retrospect, I really SHOULD have seen it coming!).  There is a fair amount of humor in the book, to lighten the tension.  For better or for worse, the narrative is peppered with pop culture references, or references to real events involving giant squid.  For example, one particular character is obsessed with Star Trek, and has in his possession a real live Tribble and a real working phaser, both created for him through magic.  Some people might find that to be a plus, some might find it to be a little corny and gimmicky.  I find myself to be in the second camp.  There's also a quick, passing reference to lolcats.

Unfortunately, the intriguing premise and interesting plot are where the book's good qualities end.  The story is made up of a large cast of characters, but only a couple of these characters are actually interesting.  Billy, the main protagonist, is something of a blank slate.  He doesn't seem to have much personality, and spends most of his time following other people around.  This could be because he's in way over his head, and doesn't understand most of what's happening, but I found him to be pretty boring until the last hundred pages or so.  Goss and Subby, hired henchmen who work for the Tattoo, are probably some of the most chilling bad guys I've read about in a long time... scenes involving them gave me the chills, so I guess they were some of the more effective characters in the novel.  Many of the other characters actually were really interesting, but they didn't get enough content to really explore their potential.  Dane Parnell, the second most important character in the book, was a fascinating character, but since we only really saw him through Billy's eyes, it was hard to really understand who he was and why he was that way.  The Tattoo, a crime lord who was actually a moving, talking tattoo on some poor innocent guy's back, was a pretty interesting bad guy, but we never found out who he was before he was a tattoo (it's implied that he was a real person at some point).  Wati, an ancient Egyptian spirit who jumps from statue to statue and talks through the mouths of the statues, was probably one of the better-developed side characters, but I could easily have read an entire book just about him, instead of just seeing him every now and then. 

Despite the good plot and the good premise, Kraken is kind of a hard book to get through, simply because of Miéville's very unique writing style.  The narration tended to be overly flowery, with too many complicated metaphors or excessively complex ways of explaining things.  In some places it worked to the story's advantage, bringing an air of mystery and otherworldliness to the plot, but in most places it just made reading feel like work.  If I wanted fiction reading to feel like work, I'd go back to high school and reread Heart of Darkness or something.  In many cases, the writing comes across as pretentious, as if Miéville is expecting his audience to be only made up of college graduates who studied ancient religion and New Marxism and English literature.  I'm as much of a fan of sesquipedalianism as the next person, but there's got to be a limit somewhere.

Regardless of the challenges presented by Miéville's writing style, I would be open to reading another work by him at some point, mostly because I've read other work by him that I did enjoy, so I know that his writing is not always so tedious and pretentious.  The strength of the plot and premise, and the satisfying conclusion to the book, are really the features that save the novel from the idiosyncratic writing style.  While reading Kraken, I wasn't really sure I was enjoying myself, but having finished the book, I was glad that I read it, so my final rating for the book is a 4/5 stars.

 Above: real photo of a giant squid.  This photo provides the inspiration for some of the symbols crafted by the Krakenists to represent their church

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