London is a fertile ground for urban fantasy these days. It’s hardly surprising, given the city’s rich cultural background, its make-up being a hodgepodge of urbanised villages with radically different social and subcultural stylings and architectural sensibilities. Travel between the lush gardens and political backdrop of St James’s Gate, the countercultural grit and grime of Camden Town, and the glitz and glamour of Leicester Square and it’s easy to see how many can perceive something other than the norm beneath the surface. Recently we’ve had authors such as Kate Griffin, Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey explore this idea, and now China Miéville returns for another stab at it with Kraken.
The story follows a young museum curator, Billy Harrow, as he’s drawn into this fantasy underbelly of the capital with the theft of a giant squid from a museum. Harrow dodges the Croup and Vandemar-esque Goss and Subby, tangles with Chaos Nazis and runs his own investigation parallel to the occult branch of the Met as he seeks to untangle who stole the Kraken, and what part it plays in the impending apocalypse.
One of Miéville’s greatest strengths as a writer is his dense style, one that might turn off casual readers but promises genuine riches for those who stick with it. His London and its dark mirror image is verdant and lived-in, a realised landscape that feels as if it’s always been there, as if we’re simply interlopers in something timeless rather than readers being introduced to it. His characters, as well, are uniformly interesting and cryptic, shaded players with as many layers as the city itself. Take the Trotskyist Wati, the proletarian chameleon Jason, the exiled Krakenist Dane, and Kath, the barely-the-right-side-of-the-law police officer as examples. Curiously, the least developed character is Billy himself, something we felt to be something of an oversight on Miéville’s part, although it does make sense in the context of the narrative. The main plot itself is engaging and develops organically, while some of the ideas the author throws up are genuinely fascinating. Kraken is not without its problems, however.
As we mentioned earlier, Miéville’s propensity toward creating amazing worlds is a real strength, but in Kraken, there is too much going on. The frenetic nature of the environment is deliberate, meant to convey the chaos with which London’s sects, gangs and movements are rabidly approaching The End, but too often it’s all you can do to pick out a single plot thread and stick with it. The short chapter structure does little to help this, and while there is something to be said for challenging books providing a complex narrative, of course, it’s just too busy to have the same focus and tight structure that his previous novel, The City And The City, displayed with such effortless moxie.
Kraken is a fine novel, but it suffers under the weight of its own scope, creating a satisfying but confusing read that wouldn’t receive the same universal acclaim that many of the previous entries in his oeuvre have. Not only that, but the London-as-a-magical-underworld setting has been done well, done often, and has more or less run its course.