China Mieville is one of the few authors that really get me excited when I happen across their name on something in a bookstore. Like whenever I open Red casino. While there are plenty of fantasy authors that produce consistently good books and stories, like Brandon Sanderson, I always know that whatever has China Mieville’s name on it will be complete insanity.
I went into “Kraken” knowing nothing but the author’s name and the picture of tentacles on the front- and I promise you, I was NOT disappointed. My quick and dirty review of “Kraken” is exactly the title: H.P. Lovecraft meets Good Omens, and, yes, it works.
“Kraken” follows the story of Billy Harrow, a professional taxidermist at the Darwin Institute in London. His job is to preserve various specimens for study and to curate the various specimens the museum possesses, including ones preserved from Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos Islands on the Beagle.
He loves his job, and his favorite specimen by far is his Archeteuthis- more colloquially known as the Giant Squid. Imagine Billy’s shock, however, when, during a tour, he discovers that the Giant Squid, tank and all, has mysteriously vanished.
In an attempt to uncover what the heck happened to his eight-meter long prized specimen, Billy is dragged into a game of cat and mouse as various occult factions throughout the city begin pointing fingers at one another and begin outright battling in the streets.
Each faction, some believing the Squid to be a baby God, others believing it to be an object of power, and others just determined to keep it out of everyone else hands, all begin running in circles to uncover where the big squid went and to get it first. Meanwhile, the FSCD- the secret cult division of the police, sprints to keep up with this exploding landscape of interfactional conflicts, contain the chaos, and rescue Billy from whatever he’s gotten himself into.
Oh, and most of these factions are determined to end the world- but to end it the “right” way by stopping each other’s version of the apocalypse- the heathens, tut-tut.
Tolkein-Esque, this ain’t
Most fantasy stories can attribute a major part of their influence to the works of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”. Even franchises with their own identities, like Harry Potter and Star Wars, can trace some of their roots to Tolkien’s work. Just about every Epic Fantasy story can, too, like The Stormlight Archive”.
While I won’t say that “Kraken” has zero Tolkien influence, it’s about as far from it as you can get. There are no elves, dwarves, or Goblins. The themes about friendship and fellowship that Tolkien was going for ain’t here.
What IS here is an inventive magic system with wildly fantastical creatures and abilities and body horror in an urban setting where broomsticks and black cats go on strikes for better wages, wizards accept pay in the form of authentic Star Trek Phasers, and exorcisms are performed by female rabbis. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the rabbit hole of madness that is China Melville’s writing.
This is why I say that “Kraken” is like Lovecraft crossed with Good Omens. “Kraken” is not a comedy. It’s not written to be funny. However, the concepts and ideas and sheer, unadulterated creativity unleashed here are sometimes so absurd that you can’t help but laugh! Yet, as if to balance it out, those same ideas are sometimes so uniquely horrifying they drag themselves out of the pit of absurdity into scary again.
For example, a talking tattoo is pretty silly, right? It’s not so funny when that same tattoo psychologically manipulates the person it’s tattooed on in order to get him to do what the tat wants- which is to run a criminal empire.
I think the Lovecraft influence, though, is fairly self-explanatory. Cthulu is even name-dropped once right at the beginning of the story and then never brought up again. This is fine, as “Kraken” deserves to stand on its own merits. If Lovecraft abstracted the things he feared into monsters, China Melville is simply insane.
Yeah, put THAT on the blurb.
That is far from saying that Melville’s writing is perfect. The character work is certainly pretty good. However, the prose can sometimes leave much to be desired as one insane idea after the other appears out of nowhere and is introduced to the reader.
If you’re a fan of hard magic systems, you will despise Melville’s work. The magic is completely arbitrary and random, following an arcane logic of its own with solutions to problems brought up with no basis. Just a “Wait- they can do that?”
Such as when, right near the climax, it’s revealed a pyromancer has the ability to make a fire that, instead of burning things, causes heated objects to start going backward through time.
I should also mention that Melville has trouble pulling together a satisfying climax. The villains are often to be revealed to rely on some twist of the laws of this universe’s reality, which were hitherto unmentioned as being possible, and the accompanying thwarting of the plot requires an equally unexplored aspect of this universe’s insane logic.
In spite of that, I still highly recommend “Kraken”. In fact, I probably recommend it more than Melville’s fantasy series set in Bas-Lag. “Perdido Street Station”, while also being a trek into insanity and chaos, is a thick, dense tome that’s not very approachable to all but avid readers. That being said, I did get far more invested in Perdido Street Station’s protagonist, Issac, than I did Billy.
Here’s the bottom line: “Kraken” is a completely absurd fantasy story that may not be whimsical but is certainly fun. The world is full of backward logic that you kind of just have to roll with, but its open-ended nature is precisely what allows Melville to keep pulling inside-out-rabbits out of his hat over and over again. “Kraken” is a macabre and gruesome tale that you simply can’t put down. I can’t recommend it enough if a dark comedy like this sounds like your kind of thing.