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Kraken by China Mieville

01/11/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Kraken in the USA - or Buy Kraken in the UK

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(pub: Macmillan. 481 page hardback. Price: GBP 17.99(UK). ISBN: 978-0-230-98950-0 pub: Pan Macmillan. 481 page small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 7.99(UK), $13.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-330-49232-4 pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 509 page hardback. Price: $26.00 (US), $31.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-49749-9).

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I really enjoyed China Mieville’s award-winning last novel, ‘The City & The City’, a strange tale set in two parallel and overlapping cities. That was very weird, so when I heard that Mieville’s new novel, ‘Kraken’, was about the rather less strange theft of a squid, I wondered whether he would be able to live up to the previous book’s success. I needn’t have worried. ‘Kraken’ is just as mind-bending as its predecessor and deserves at least as much success.

Billy Harrow is a curator in the marine department at the Natural History Museum in London. His life is turned upside down on the day that his prize exhibit, a new and almost perfect specimen of the giant squid, Architeuthis dux, which he personally prepared for display, is stolen from the museum. Things go from bad to worse when he discovers a man’s body in a pickling jar, deep in the bowels of the museum, two days later.

Billy is interviewed by a special police unit who investigate occult crimes. They tell him that there are several cults across London that worship the giant squid as a god. They think the squid may have been stolen by one of these cults, upset that their god has been put on display for all and sundry to see. Billy doesn’t believe a word of it until a few days later when his friend Leon pops round to his flat and brings up his post. This includes a parcel, out of which unfold a man and a boy in a miracle of human origami. When Leon tries to defend Billy from them, he is eaten whole by the man. The pair then kidnap Billy and take him to be interrogated by their boss, one of London’s underground crime lords. The boss turns out to be a living tattoo on a man’s back.

From this point on, the storyline just gets weirder and weirder. Along the way, Billy is rescued by Dane, a squid cultist, then meets the Pope of Dane’s religion, has to fight men whose heads are giant hands and realises that if you scratch the surface of London you will find a whole parallel world living just beneath. He and Dane get a lot of help from the disembodied organiser of the union for magicians’ familiars, even though he’s busy organising a mass strike in protest at the working conditions of rabbits, squirrels and beetles.

Throughout it all, Billy still wants to find out who stole his squid and why. Meanwhile, lots of other people want to catch Billy, as they’re sure that he has the answer to those same two questions. Billy starts to get really worried when some cultists tell him that they expect the stealing of the squid to result in the destruction of the entire world, though none of them can tell him how. However, when Dane is captured by the Tattoo’s men, Billy realises he’s going to have to figure the answers out for himself and soon.

I loved this book. Mieville has repeatedly shown an ability to invent strange and wonderful fantasy worlds for his characters and in ‘Kraken’ he has truly outdone himself. I was carried along by a tidal wave of ideas, with barely the time to take a breath between each. The characters are outlandish, yet always believable within the context. The myths and legends of various different gods competing for the attention of less conventional Londoners are wonderfully realistic. However, what gave me the most enjoyment was the fun that Mieville has with his story. It is told with a great deal of dark humour and there is a lot of playfulness in the language and the style. ‘Kraken’ is a long book, at five hundred pages, yet the narrative always seemed fresh and exciting, never once flagging or getting dull.

With ‘Kraken’, China Mieville has done it again. Fans of his writing will, I’m sure, need no encouragement to go out and buy the book. If you haven’t read anything by him previously, this is a great place to start. ‘The New Weird’, of which Mieville is a leading proponent, just got weirder.

Patrick Mahon

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