China Mieville entered the fiction scene quietly. King Rat was an unconventional horror novel that gained some recognition through award nominations, but little success commercially. Perdido Street Station the book that put Mieville’s name on the map, readers who could overlook its lexical diarrhea discovered a unique story of hitherto unknown proportions in genre—no mean feat in the 21st century. Bas-Lag a fantastical, fertile setting, Mieville penned two additional novels in the milieu, the storylines gaining integrity with every step. (Even if Iron Council was messily executed, its ideas transcend the simplicity of Perdido’s aim to be “a good monster story”.) The follow up to Bas-Lag, The City & the City (2009), saw increased focus on social/political ideals, but was bundled with tight prose and a refined structure to produce Mieville’s most accomplished novel to date. It’s thus with Kraken (2010), the next novel, a regression can be observed, and if not regression, at least reversion.
Hearkening back to the urban horror/fantasy of King Rat, Kraken is a unique romp through London that swims with undersea monsters and cults. Mieville (thankfully) abandoning his ‘why use one word when twenty esoteric will do’ approach to storytelling, Kraken is a focused plot that works its way lucidly, patiently, one paranormally Weird step at a time through arcane magic, supernatural gangsters, and of course, the mother of all giant squids in Mother London. Taking a seemingly innocuous natural history museum and turning it on its fantastic head, all sorts of the esoteric emerge from the woodwork as the apocalypse descends on the kidnapped cephalopod.
Kraken is great fun. One can see Mieville relaxing, just telling the story coming to his mind. But it’s ideologically empty. Where The City & the City possesses layers examining how the urban landscape is perceived by the individual and culture, Kraken is a load of ideas that work for the story’s purpose, but for its purpose alone. There is little that transcends the tale the reader can sink their conceptual teeth into. The last third of the novel dragging its feet, the initial setup weighing it down, all the fluffiness comes to a head with a simple Darwinsim vs. creationism climax that is sub-par compared to the wealth of knowledge Mieville displays in his public appearances. Something noticeably lacking compared to the thematic and artistic presentations of Iron Council, The City & the City, and to some degree The Scar, Kraken is regression to ‘good monster story’.
Kraken is a ripping yarn that shows how far Mieville’s storytelling talents have come. The prose crackling, the sense of the urban paranormal wide-angle, and the characters straight out of a Guy Ritchie film, it’s a unique book for the urban fantasy elements, voicing, and unpredictable direction of plot. Mieville coming into his craft since the excesses of Perdido, the novel remains more style than substance, however. Its thematic import is significantly limited in scope by comparison. Kraken is a lark. Readers of James Blaylock, Tim Powers, and Neil Gaiman will greatly enjoy it, but those looking for Mieville to take his literary chops to the next level should skip ahead to the next, Embassytown.