Review: THE KRAKEN by China Mieville

The story is that of a young man who works as an embalmer at a natural history museum in London. He is somewhat surprised after a large squid which he embalmed – the eponymous Kraken – is found missing under Mysterious Circumstances. By staggered reveals and discreet adventures he is introduced to a world of magic and mayhem, a secret sorcerous City just out of sight. Most of the denizens thereof are your average blokes, their not-so-average powers not at all affecting their needs to make a living and have a pint at the end of the day. And so he must play various factions and fancies against each other, and navigate this uncanniest of valleys to its end – to solve the mystery, to revenge his wrongs, to fulfill his destiny, to save the world.

Few novels are capable of being all things to all people. Icarus would be in low earth orbit if he dared to fly so high as Mieville. It is no surprise that The Kraken loses itself, becomes unbelievable both by its own and natural rules of rationality, and leaves the feeling of dull insatiatety that only profound overindulgence can result.

It is possible that this novel is all things to a certain subset of people. The character of that audience is very clear. They are the self-consciously alternative, the young who are now adults, the children of the tales of Tolkien who now find themselves in a land most emphatically antithetical to Hobbiton (namely Somerville). China Mieville often attends conventions which cater to this crowd, and he has with stunning mastery catered to their basest desires. Let us not mince words: this is a book for cosplayers. It is the apotheosis of fanservice: it is catamite, not to any particular fans, but to those who base a majority of their self-definition on their being a part of Fandom.

I have great admiration for those who wish to live romantically in their own lives, who work to bring their desire for the epic into the world in which they and theirs must live. This story, and so much of urban fantasy, is instead for those who wish to believe they are such people – who delude themselves into thinking they live lives of high Romance, when in practice they are nothing but mundanes with an unearned swagger and purple hair. These stories are no less escapist, no less distant from their day-to-day, than any tales of dragons. At least the followers of high fantasy have the good graces to see the distance between themselves and their fantasies, and sigh that it is so great; lovers of The Kraken do not see the difference, and so are children.

That being said, this impressive Diagon Alley fanfic introduces some exceptionally creative ideas, and often exhibits a remarkble fluidity of action and economy of prose. These instances are simply overwhelmed by the frequent intrusion into the text of their almost Paracelsian inverts. For every ingenious magical power there is one which could belong to a Marvel superhero, and does; for every character displaying direct agency in their life there is a fleet of 747s bearing the proud colors of Deus Ex Machina Airlines (now serving Mt. Doom!); for every logical progression of a mystery there are two which require leaps of illogic that, an intelligent reader not being able to make them without the aid of recreational pharmaceuticals, demonstrate only that one need not leap in order to move forward – removing any sense of agency, either of the characters in the story or of the author – which then destroys sympathetic response, obliterates concern and thus anticipation, and in all ways takes immersion out of its dunk-tank and tells is to dry off, the party’s over, it’s time to go home and go to bed.

And there are Legion of the sins of the genre which The Kraken commits with almost religious completeness. Pop culture references are half forced and all dated. Characters introduced in medias res are killed off with such excruciating lethargy that one wishes that, by ceasing to care about them, they could be made to disappear. Some mysteries are left painfully unexplained while some are resolved so neatly and thoroughly as to leave no memory that they were ever mysterious, or even interesting.

The greatest difficulty in the story, growing logarithmically more difficult as the page count increases, is the constant introduction of new facets of the world. There is little enjoyment in following a mystery wherein the key clue is not discovered until the last page. This is amplified magnificently when the missing element is not only a clue, but a mechanic of the world. Imagine Sherlock Holmes finding a man killed by a deep burn wound, and on the last page learning that a time-traveling Starfleet cadet is running about Victoria’s London with a phaser. Readers of The Kraken will realize that all elements of this comparison are drawn from the text itself.

Mr. Mieville sees to subscribe very strongly to the Tim Powers school of pacing, wherein, IF you don’t know what happens next THEN have something totally new run in, and let all and plenty be carried by its new energy. At times this has the effect of a sorbet, refreshing a palate in time for a new course; more often it feels like the presentation of yet another plate, until one is past any interest in food or drink, nor has any clear memory of where the meal began; one just wants the check.

The author seeks to establish a world and then let it run wild, a watchmaker setting the gears in motion and seeing what time will tell. It’s a heck of a world, and you spend much of the novel looking desperately for reasons to be attached to those characters which he has lost within it. The constant introduction of new mechanics, new characters, new sub-plots, ad plenum, makes China Mieville a watchmaker who can’t stop tinkering; it betrays impatience, a lack of confidence, and an inability to create a story which has the drive and consistency to be worthwhile until its own end.



~ by davekov on 16 June 2012.

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