Deep in the research wing of the Natural History Museum is a prize specimen, something that comes along much less often than once in a lifetime: a perfect, and perfectly preserved, giant squid. But what does it mean when the creature suddenly and impossibly disappears?
For curator Billy Harrow it's the start of a headlong pitch into a London of warring cults, surreal magic, apostates and assassins. It might just be that the creature he's been preserving is more than a biological rarity: there are those who are sure it's a god. A god that someone is hoping will end the world.
Kraken is my first China Miéville. I feel the need to say this upfront because I've since heard that this novel is his worst, but as my first time encountering his new weird fantasy, it still blew my mind.
The story starts as a police procedural, anchored in reality, although the objective of the heist is not quite common: a giant squid, an Architeuthis. Up until this point, the story was riveting. I wasn't entirely sure if there was going to be magic in my urban fantasy, or it would be populated by non-humans, or what, but I really wanted to know who stole a kraken and why. Then the first hints of magic (or knacking, as Miéville calls it), witches, and gods appeared.
Miéville is an incredibly gifted writer. He is way above my reading level - he is definitely more learned than I am, so I was constantly looking up words and facts, and racking my head to understand witty word puns. This quickly became my favorite aspect of the book: the witticism. On top of being an outstanding writer, he's got a PhD on international relations and is an active socialist. This decidedly shows in his book, but I like my fantasy with a side of politics and philosophy. He is also really imaginative, so the magic system was innovative. Origami magic? A group of prophets who literally read the entrails of the city? A Union of Magicked Assistants who goes on strike organized by the spirit of an old Egyptian shabti? Who thinks of that?
At the same time, this intellectuality is the downfall of the story. Kraken is bursting with ideas and half-plots that end up going nowhere. If this novel was twice as long, it would still need more pages to develop every idea that gets mentioned. The lack of space entails a lack of emotional investment in the characters. You root for the characters because you are supposed to, but you never really have an opportunity to care for them. The death of one character is briefly dwelt upon, both by the characters themselves and by the author. And it should have had more of an impact. The story never really grabs you and make you read uncontrollably. In short, Kraken lacks soul.
I am looking forward to reading the rest of Miéville production because it's true that his worst (if this truly is his worst) is still better than the best of many. So what's your favorite Miéville?