Friday, September 7, 2012

REVIEW: Kraken by China Mieville

by China Mieville

“And the continual non-up-turnance of so valuable a commodity as a giant squid—the thought of getting their alembics on which made the city’s alchemists whine like dogs—was provoking more and more interest from London’s repo-men and -women.” 

Billy Harrow works at the Darwin Centre, a museum and research facility in London that is focused on evolution. Their prized possession is a dead, preserved giant squid. When the giant squid suddenly disappears, Billy is thrust down the rabbit hole (so quickly I had to put the book down for a sec) into an insane London underbelly full of magic and cults, criminals and police. Along the way, he discovers that the theft of the squid somehow sets off the chain of events that will lead to the end of the world. He must learn the rules and break them all if he is to save London, and the world, from a fiery doom.

Did you understand that synopsis? I'm not sure I did.

This book is insane, and often you have to do mental backflips to grasp what is going on, who is fighting who, who did this horrible thing and why? But it is really good.

It's China Mieville, who gave us the equally complex Un Lun Dun. He loves himself some London underbelly. They also share themes: the importance of words, the un/destined hero, and prophecy informing present action. He also gives us a giant new helping of world building, species and rules. Some are similar, like the house that contains a forest in Un Lun Dun vs. the Embassy of the Sea (a house that contains the ocean) in Kraken.

Other things are completely new: reading the future of the city through cutting open the (literal) guts of the street, the Tattoo (a parasitic villain who lives on a man's back), Chaos Nazis (those who believe that the core value of Nazism is decadence and dress like deranged clowns), Goss and Subby (a nightmarish duo: a man who talks mostly nonsense and a silent boy who are responsible for most bloody catastrophes in history), angels of memory (the anthropomorphic protectors of museums and libraries), and most importantly, the cult that worships all things squid-related.

No, not Cthullu, though that is what I thought for the first few chapters. And the strange thing is, Mieville manages to take us from laughing about the ludicrousness of worshiping cephalopods as gods to being incredibly moved by the devotion of one particular devotee (I won't give away who).

There are so many joyful and clever inventions in this book, and often they don't feel like belong to the same world. You wonder if Mieville has all these crazy ideas in his head and then decides to take all of them and funnel them into one book. But somehow, he makes every single one of the crazy ideas relevant to the plot, even unnamed characters you gloss over for the first 3/4 of the book. As far out as it goes, he manages to tie it all back together. When the climax finally comes, you realize where everything was going and that it could only end this way.

And I love that Mieville is a NERD. He sprinkles so many references to nerd pop culture in there (some of them very obscure). One entire segment is devoted to a man who is so much of a Star Trek fan that he basis his magic on Star Trek's technology.

The characters are incredibly exciting too: Wati (a Egyptian spirit created to serve the dead in the afterlife who rebelled and is now a union organizer), Collingswood (a sassy and brassy doesn't-give-a-fuck cop chick with self-taught magic mojo), Smiley the Chameleon (a man whose power it is to make you think that you probably know him, doesn't he work in the office down the hall?).  It was a joy to watch Billy Harrow transform throughout the book, not through a one time test, like with Bilbo and the Spiders, but gradually, absorbing information and strategy as he goes. He begins as protectee,  walking behind his guide and protector, then beside, then offering plans as a co-combatant, then leading the group against the apocalypse.

While Mieville has this crazy, brainy, intricate and often perplexing style, he sprinkles in moments of whimsy, like "squididity" and "squid pro quo." Silly little puns to make your turning brain go "meh heh" and give it a break.

All in all an excellent book. Bit of a steak meal, though, so I'm going for something lite next.