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Review: Kraken by China Mieville

china mieville kraken Review: Kraken by China Mieville

China Mieville is a British author who is probably best known for his vast Peake-esque Bas Lag books, for which he has received an array of accolades. When describing a Mieville novel, two things that inevitably crop up are nods to Mievilles in-depth world-building, and his idiosyncratic use of language, both of which are evident throughout his entire oeuvre, and even those pieces of work that depart substantially from the loosely linked Bas Lag trilogy.

Kraken, Mievilles newest offering, brings together many of the elements evident in the authors fairly diverse backlog, resulting in a strange and Frankensteinian read that has the uncomfortable appeal of a rather violent car crash. In terms of its positioning amongst the rest of Mievilles work, Kraken seems most at home between the crazed YA Un Lun Dun and the recent noir detective novel'The City and the City. For the most part (more in this later) it offers a fairly restrained writing style, with none of the Tsypkin-esque sentences that spill over whole chapters, and also makes full and flagrant use of the whimsical and absurd humour in evidence throughout Mievilles later work. Kraken is almost, in fact, the older and slightly disturbed older brother of Un Lun Dun.

The reader is settled immediately in the ground-down and dirty Dickensian London Mieville so loves, but from the get-go things are somewhat awry, sitting with the precariousness of a jaunty cap on a windy day. Young Billy, whose major claim to fame is a little white lie about being the worlds first test tube baby, 'is a museum worker who has a slight affinity for cephalapods, and as such he has the delightful role of overseeing the museums own giant squid. Until, of course, said squid goes missing, and things really get kraken. Er, I mean cracking.

Billy then happens upon a preserved chap in the museum storeroom, is visited by a couple of coppers from the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit, and finds out that his co-worker Dane is an excommunicated member of the Church of the Giant Squid. And, it seems, there is an impending squiddy apocalypse. Or, indeed, two (Mieville doesnt like to do things by halves). From here on in, the narrative carries on with the exuberant giddiness of a Whiz-Fizz-medicated child spinning in circles, and were introduced to talking tattoos, Trekkie ghosts, Morse Code lamp posts, and all sorts of distorted Lovecraftian horrors.

While this all makes for a fast and page-turning read, though, I have to say that on the whole I felt that the narrative of Kraken doesnt quite work for me. The book feels uneven and stilted, with the short scenes and constant scene and point-of-view changes working against its flow. Billy, too, is a nothing sort of character easily overshadowed by the other zany whosits who appear on just about every second page, and its difficult to really care about anything that happens to him.

Unfortunately, after a while, I felt like a student archaeologist: digging about to unearth the next amusing thing but with little idea about why, or how it all fit together. None of this is helped by the oddly patchy writing evident in Kraken, either: sections of fairly neat, and occasionally even understated, prose are split apart by huge chunks of word play and introspection and squid-rants that serve little purpose, apparently, other than to give the author some time to think.

Kraken is a good deal of fun, theres no doubt about it, but I cant help but feel that the book would have benefited from a bit of reining in and a wee bit of spit and polish. The incessant barrage of ideas and in-jokes, while likely appealing to many readers, does become somewhat tiresome after a while, and unfortunately, despite clocking in at almost 500 pages,'Kraken never really ventures beyond extended yarn status.

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  1. TeeDee /

    Yeah, thats a pretty apt review. Im a Mieville fan and was hoping for something better, but it just doesnt gel together as a whole. There are some great ideas and characters which had potential for so much more, but many are just skimmed over, so that there is a bit of information overload.

    Hopefully his next book, a space/alien epic (a sub-genre he hasnt gone to yet), will be better.

    • Steph /

      Hi there, thanks for stopping by. I agree: I think it's an unfortunate case of throwing in everything and the kitchen sink. This was an issue in Perdido, too, but I think that book was saved by a much stronger plot, better world building, and much more empathetic characters. Kraken seems to represent an effort to try something new, which I appreciate, but it makes me feel as though Mieville got lost in his own ideas whilst wandering along the various narrative paths. This similar sort of 'and then something cool happened!' approached work in Un Lun Dun, though, I feel, but largely because it's a smaller book as a whole and doesn't try to be everything to everyone.

      Ooh, that next one sounds intriguing. I'll have to put in another preorder!

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