China Miéville's long-awaited squid epic, Kraken, hits shelves next month. Like his previous novel, The City & The City, it's about an urban landscape that forms its own alternate reality. In Kraken, the city of London is haunted by gods.
Though The City & The City was set (sort of) on Earth, Kraken is one of the author's only novels set in a real place. London, where Miéville has lived for many years, comes alive in this book as a living entity. Its streets are guarded by Londonmancers; its museums protected by angels of memory; and its proletarian class of magicians' familiars are represented by a union organizer called Wati from the Egyptian land of the dead. But none of this is known to our protagonist Billy, a geek who works preserving specimens at the Darwin Centre. When a giant squid specimen from his museum goes missing, Billy finds himself the object of suspicion from members of London's magic underground.
He's investigated by a BPRD-like paranormal police organization, including a fast-talking witch cop named Collingswood. And then his best friend is murdered before his eyes by two evil creatures called Goss and Subby. And it's all because Billy is the man who preserved the kraken. The tenticular beast is the key to a looming apocalypse, and this makes Billy some kind of messiah, or possibly a false prophet. Or maybe just a really scared nerd. Fleeing the cops and a magical gangster called the Tattoo, Billy is rescued by Dane, an assassin from the Krakenist church, which believes in an indifferent squid god that will eventually drown the world.
Like many of Miéville's novels, Kraken is a picaresque. Billy's flight through London's enchanted underground, which will remind many readers of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, is the occasion for a series of vignettes about all the weird creatures who inhabit a world that most people never see. Eventually it emerges that London is about to suffer not just one apocalypse, but a what might be called a multipocalypse. Every possible end of the world, predicted by faiths from the Krakenists to the Christians, is about to hit all at once.
But is that all that's going on? Perhaps the end is actually being ushered in by a gang war between the Tattoo and his old rival, who has come back from the dead. Or could it be connected to a terrifying force that's killing familiars who've gone on strike? Or maybe it has to do with the angels of memory, who have left their museums and are roaming the streets. Once you get about halfway through Kraken's epic length, you'll begin to feel like you're reading a smart, literary version of a JJ Abrams TV series: Every answer leads to another mystery, whose resolution is less satisfying than the last.
As a friend of mine put it, the frustrating part of Kraken is that it feels like there is no meaningful relationship between the amount of time we spend learning about a character and their importance to the plot. This may be Miéville's intention. Part of the pleasure of Kraken arises from meeting all the weird characters. There's the punk who discovers that the tattoo he got when he was drunk is actually the face of an evil magician, now trapped forever in his skin (that would be the Tattoo). And then there's the Trekkie whose magical power is teleportation. But it turns out that every time he teleports, he's killed his previous self and now he's being haunted by all the versions of himself that he's killed. There's Collingswood, the witch whose best friend is a pig spirit. And Wati, whose story of achieving class consciousness is one of the most moving Marxist fables I've ever read. Or the professor at a lowly university who is actually the most powerful fire wizard in London.
One can take quite a bit of delight in these characters and their interactions, but ultimately the arc of the story suffers as a result. As we race towards the apocalypse, uncovering clues that lead to more clues, it's simply inevitable that there can be no satisfying solution to the novel's central mystery: Who stole the squid, and why did they start the apocalypse? Indeed, though the twist ending is as inventive as anything Miéville has written, it feels random and unwarranted. Kraken would have succeeded as a series of linked short stories, I think. But it doesn't quite hold together as a novel.
Still, the book is enormously fun to read. Just don't go into it expecting a payoff at the end. With Kraken, the pleasure is all in the ride around the London of Miéville's imagination.