Monday, October 4, 2010

Kraken by China Miéville

Let me preface this post by saying that I am a HUGE fan of China Mieville, I've loved his writing ever since I read Perdido Street Station back in 2001. He has a knack for writing characters who are multi-dimensional (sometimes literally), colorful, memorable and often very flawed. His characters always seem real and tangible, even when they inhabit a world that is completely foreign, scary, and bizarre. This is the style of writing that I expected going into Kraken, but it's not at all what I got.

The protagonist of Kraken, Billy Harrow, is a simple curator at The Darwin Centre. After a giant squid inexplicably disappears from his museum, Billy dives headlong into a London where magic is common, cults are everywhere, and his knowledge of giant squids (in particular the missing squid) makes him a wanted man. He partners up with a renegade squid-cult warrior and sets off on a quest to discover who stole the giant squid and how it's theft ties-in to an impending apocalypse. Billy has run-ins with a colorful bunch of characters who are significantly more memorable than he is.

What didn't appeal to me about this book was the overall tone. I've grown to appreciate Mieville's strong political views appearing in his work as well as his dead serious approach to what is often completely fantastical content. In Kraken, it's almost like he's trying to write a comedic novel. There are some humorous moments to be sure, but overall, I think I just missed a lot of the humor. Maybe you have to be British to get it. Maybe you have to be more familiar with the city of London to appreciate his treatment of the city, but I definitely missed the humor and most of the London references. The pacing of the book is painfully slow for the first three quarters. It picks up considerably toward the end, and at moments I thought that Mieville could pull the story out of the fire. It just never happened.

The book wasn't all bad, there are moments of brilliance that really push it from a cheeky comedy toward the genre that Mieville claims he writes: Weird Fiction. There were a lot of cool characters and concepts in the book; a character who only exists in statues, a character made of ink, a teleporting Star Trek fan, and a group of thugs whose heads are nothing more than clenched fists. These are all very funky and cool creatures to read about, but they are only tertiary characters. By contrast the main character is so bland and boring that I had to push myself through this book.

China Mieville is an amazingly talented author. His Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council) are an amazing example of contemporary fantasy (or 'weird fiction' as Mieville calls it). I highly recommend Mieville as an author, but I just can't recommend this book.

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