Review: Kraken

by Tom Ingram

A preserved giant squid is mysteriously missing from a museum. One of the museum’s curators is interviewed by a secret police team that deals with cult-related crime. They offer to bring Billy, the curator, in as a consultant as they try to discover what apocalyptic shenanigans the underground squid-worshipping cult is up to. Intriguing stuff, in its way, and most authors could make something beautiful out of that premise alone. A New Weird police procedural, The Dresden Files with a quirky English flavour.

China Mieville is not most writers.

Within the first fifty pages or so, Billy opens a letter. A man and his son unfold themselves from inside the tiny parcel, gibbering incoherently, and devour whole Billy’s friend Leon. They take Billy away to meet a sentient tattoo that has set itself up as a crime lord from the back of its host, whose minions are bikers with hands in place of heads and people with home electronics surgically inserted into their bodies.

The squid-worshippers quickly become familiar and charming. Kraken is a bit of an odd book. From the deranged and feverish imagination of China Mieville comes imagery that is beautiful, funny, and terrifying, but always really, really weird. It’s the freshest thing I’ve read this year.

What I want to see, now, is a good quality film adaptation. This book lends itself well to that kind of thing, and imagining what a Burton or del Toro could do with Mieville’s twisted imagery with today’s technology makes me have to change my pants. Mieville’s vivid prose, interpreted to screen, would make one of the greatest movies ever.

Once he escapes from the Tattoo, Billy is bewildered to see that the London he’s always known isn’t real, and HOLY SHIT IS THAT A RADIO IN THAT GUY’S CHEST? Gradually, at the same pace as the reader, he builds up confidence and familiarity with this new world. It’s always vaguely disconcerting, but aside from that delightfully uncomfortable moment where Mieville sweeps our assumptions from beneath us it’s never confusing.

China Mieville’s writing style, by the way, is beautiful. His colourful character voices are a delight, of course, but even better is the flowing, rhythmic, dreamy quality to his narration. And, when it comes down to it, he has a knack for creative swearing (the word “cunttoaster” stuck in my mind especially).

I’ve said before that urban fantasy stories tend to take on the character of the city they’re set in. Mieville knows London personally, well enough that he could be one of his imagined Londonmancers. I’ve never been there, but it’s hard to remember that reading Kraken. This was obviously a book he tremendously enjoyed writing, and it shows all the way through.