Ah, lazy bank holiday weekend, I’ve been celebrating with a substantial fried breakfast and heinous amounts of coffee. Be still, my beating heart – and it probably will. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s Kraken, his most recent work of urban fantasy, you see. It’s taken me a while – I do, as I think I have said before, have a reading list as long as my arm.
I’ve talked about Miéville before in these pages, but to sum up – he’s a fantasy author with something of a cult following who writes work set primarily in an urban environment. Kraken, like his earlier works Un Lun Dun and King Rat, is set in a strange alternate fantasy version of London.
Our protagonist is Billy Harrow, a curator at the Natural History Museum. One morning, he discovers that one of the Museum’s star exhibits, a preserved giant squid in a tank, has vanished without trace. Almost immediately, Billy finds himself dragged into an utterly bizarre underworld of cults and magic, the target of a police unit dedicated to investigating weirdness, a church that worships the Kraken and a gang leader who happens to be a living tattoo. Oh, and the Apocalypse is coming. Make that Apocalypses.
What I would say marks this book out among Miéville’s work is the fun he has with it. He did have a few laughs in Un Lun Dun, but like so many adult fantasy authors who try to break into kids’ books, they came across as forced. Kraken, on the other hand, is written with a kind of 2000AD sensibility, a real sense of deliciously black humour. We are introduced to the Londonmancers, magicians who might best be described as pro-active psychogeographers. The Tattoo’s henchmen are the Knuckleheads, whose name is rather more literal than you might expect. Wati, an ally of the protagonist, is a spirit who can manifest in any statue or carving, right down to a Captain Kirk action figure. And there’s the rather disturbing question of what actually happens when you teleport a person…
For someone who’s made his name subverting the fantasy genre (he once described J R R Tolkien as “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature”), the author does get a lot of mileage out of playing with clichés. The best (and funniest) example of this might be when the foul-mouthed police magician Collingwood goes after Wati using spirits literally created out of copper stereotypes (“bring this little toerag in, overtime, nonce, slag, guv, sarge, proceedin long the eye street”).
This is London fantasy in the grand tradition of Neverwhere – Miéville has acknowledged his debt to Neil Gaiman in the past, and in particular has noted the similarities between Kraken’s Goss and Subby and Neverwhere’s Croup and Vandemar. However, unlike many works of London fantasy, this one plays off the incoherence of the city – the fact that London cannot simply be summed up according to any particular mythology or structure, that it’s many different places coexisting at once, perceived in many different ways by many different people.
As a Miéville book, it’s much more lightweight than most of his other work. If it has a major fault, it’s that there is perhaps too much going on – so much is thrown in by way of crazy ideas and characters that it’s hard to track down the central core of the book. When the big revelation comes at the end, it doesn’t make you think, “Of course! Why didn’t I realise that?” so much as it makes you think, “Eh? Where did that come from?”
In short, if you’re hoping for another The City and The City, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a work of urban fantasy that’s intelligent and gripping and doesn’t take itself too seriously, then it comes highly recommended from me, for what that’s worth.
Here’s to the upcoming release of Embassytown…