Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Kraken - China Miéville

   2010; 509 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Urban Fantasy; Weird Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The kraken’s been kidnapped!  Well, technically, its corpse has, since it was already dead.  It was an exhibit immersed in a tank of Formaldehyde in a London museum.  And technically, it was a giant squid, not a kraken.  So maybe we should call it a squidnapping.

    But the theft has triggered something metaphysical : an end-of-the-world angst felt by every Doomsday cultist in the city.  There are even a few normal people who feel it.  So lots of folks want to get their hands on that purloined piscine, for all sorts of reasons  Some are even willing to kill for it.

    But no one is quite sure who stole it.  Or how.

What’s To Like...
    Kraken is vintage China Miéville.  The writing is superb; the characters are fascinating; and the world-building of a gritty, dark “Other London” will have you wiping the grime from your hands.  The book is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, and I always eat that up.  You’ll need to keep a dictionary handy (unless you are reading this on your Kindle), for the Britishisms, the Cockney rhyming, the technical terms, and a bunch of regular-but-unfamiliar words.

    The basic storyline involves one Billy Harrow, the guy at the museum who actually pickled the giant squid, and his efforts to retrieve it.  Billy’s motivations are academic; he wants to understand why someone would steal the specimen.  But since he's physically touched the cadaver while prepping it, there are cultists who view him as “The Chosen One”.

    Miéville uses the plot as a vehicle for discussing a number of themes – Doomsday Seers, Evolution, The Flow of Time, Blind Faith, Labor Unions, and Religious Cults.  He refreshingly finds a way to poke gentle fun at all of these topics, while also finding plusses for each.  To keep this from getting preachy or annoying, he infuses a subtle, but steady amount of wit and humor into the tale, including puns and absurdities, such as a gang lord who’s now a tattoo, bullets that hatch, and the spirit-world’s “familiars” going on strike.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Pootling (v.)  :  moving or traveling in a leisurely manner.  A Britishism.
Other new words/phrases encountered : Shtum; Dosh; Coco (v.); Benthos; Asymptote; Kip; “Sweet Fanny Adams”; Haruspex; Buboes; Melisma; and Tachyon.  Britishisms in italics.

    They gathered to compare gnoses, in Edgware cafés over sheesha or pubs in Primrose Hill or somewhere called Almagan Yard, mostly their favoured hangouts in the “trap streets”, Vardy said.  They traded dissident mysteries in vague competition, as if faiths were Top Trumps cards.
    “What about your apocalypse, then?”  “Well, the universe is a leaf on the time-tree, and come autumn it’s going to shrivel and fall off into hell.”  Murmurs of admiration.  “Ooh, nice one.  My new lot say ants are going to eat the sun.”  (pg. 41)

    “What was that squirrel?” Billy said.
    “Freelancer,” Dane said.
    “What?  Freelance what?”
    “Familiar.”  Familiar.  “Don’t look like that.  Familiar.  Don’t act like you’ve never heard of one.”
    Billy thought of black cats.  “Where is it now?”
    “I don’t know, I don’t want to know.  It did what I paid it for.”  Dane did not look at him.  “Job done.  So it’s gone.”
    “What did you pay it?”
    “I paid it nuts, Billy.  What would you think I’d pay a squirrel?”  (pg. 101)

 I have a rule: I prefer anyone who doesn’t try to kill me to anyone who does.”  (pg.  223)
    Kraken was my fifth China Miéville novel, and my view of him as one of the top authors of the 21st century has not changed a whit.  But before plowing into one of his books, it should be recognized that they are always long, and the reading (unless you are a “skimmer”) will be rewarding, but slow.  Miéville mitigates this by using short chapter lengths here, but it still took me two weeks to finish the book.

    Also, Miéville’s works are character-driven, so at times the pace of the plot slows as the reader is treated to Billy meeting yet another fascinating character, but one who doesn’t get him any closer to solving the squid mystery.

    In the hands of a lesser writer, this is a recipe for a boring book.  But Miéville makes it another scintillating masterpiece.  I've yet to read a mediocre novel by him, let alone a poor one.

    9 Stars.  This was a challenging, thought-provoking read, but I loved it.  Subtract one star if you have a book report due tomorrow, and plan to rush through Kraken.  You’ll either miss the beauty of a Miéville novel due to the requisite skimming, or else find yourself staying up all night as the story pulls you in.

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