Miéville was having fun with this one. In all of his works there’s a little humour, or, at least, an awareness that things can be construed as funny — a little punning here, a little wry existential smile at the ridiculousness of it all there. Kraken, though, is very definitely a (dark) comedy. It’s hardly Terry Pratchett, and my sides remained unsplit, but I did find myself smiling on a number of occasions.
A giant squid goes inexplicably missing from the Natual History Museum. Billy, our everyman protagonist, works at the Museum and seems to be of interest to parties interested in its disappearance. He is quickly dragged into an otherLondon of the type so familiar to us from books such as Neverwhere, Rivers of London, and Un Lun Dun.
To begin with, there seems to be three involved parties: the magical division of the cops (at last, I see why Ben Aaronovitch was so displeased with Miéville), the local magical crime gang, and a squid-centric cult. The Tattoo (a classically transgressive Miévillean villain) sends out his henchmen, Goss and Subby (also delightfully disturbing bad guys), after Billy. He is rescued from them by Dane, enforcer for the Kraken church, who convinces him that the police won’t be able to do him any good. Over the course of the novel the two follow a convoluted trail that brings them closer to figuring out who was behind the heist and what their motivations were.
Despite its exuberant trappings, the basic plot is fairly mundane. This, plus the fact that Billy starts out very passive and quite bland, made me feel like this was one of his weaker works for the first few chapters. That said, things do get a bit more involved as the diverse plot threads start to come together, and by the end there are a lot of characters bouncing off of each other. Billy too becomes a lot more puissant and attuned to the logic of otherLondon, proving himself worthy of all that mysterious interest that was shown in him at the beginning.
The ending is one part ‘my metaphor is stronger that yours’, one part ‘curses, you’ve sabotaged my armageddon machine!’, and one part ‘this does not make sense’. I’ve always been a big fan of the magic-as-metaphor approach. It aligns nicely with the power of belief stuff, and, if done well, can lead to more mature and satisfying culminations than what’s available via mechanistic sysems of magic. Here, there is an eminence gris called, appropriately, Grisamentum who plays an important role in the novel’s finale. He takes a form that is particularly fitting given this importance of metaphor and language (the [opaque] clue is in the name).
Really, though, the plot is just a christmas tree for Miéville to hang all sorts of ingenious baubles on. I’ve already mentioned The Tattoo and Goss and Subby, but there’s plenty more besides. There’s a lovely scene where a cultist is bemoaning the necessity of using thematic rather than effective weapons (like a squid gun); there’s another where a spirit who possesses statues talks out of a Captain Kirk doll, while the other characters get to play with a toy phaser magicked up to actually work (and, yes, it has a ‘stun’ setting). One subplot involves all of London’s familiars going on strike. This is a great idea, and, unsurprisingly given his impeccably lefty credentials, one that Miéville depicts with authenticity and affection.
The ending is happy, the plot is pure romp, the characters are over the top (though no less effective for that), and there’s all sorts of puns and humerous touches throughout. Despite all this, though, I think that Miéville is just too serious a writer for Kraken to be considered an unmitigated success as a comic novel. Still, an entertaining read and a must for fans.