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Kraken: An Anatomy by China Miéville

Kraken: An Anatomy by China Miéville
Book Name: Kraken: An Anatomy
Author: China Miéville
Publisher(s): Del Rey Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy / Urban Fantasy / New Weird
Release Date: June 29, 2010

They say there are no new stories, just tropes, myths and archetypes that appear over and over again in different guises. This is, perhaps, especially the case in genres such as fantasy, where the narrative traditions are strong enough to provide joke material for fans and where unoriginal tales can so easily slide into self-parody. The challenge for writers in the field is not, then, to provide stories cut from new cloth, but to approach the established traditions with enough insight and creativity that we, the readers, will see something old made new again.

China Miéville meets this challenge in his latest-but-one book, Kraken: An Anatomy. Kraken’s story adopts a trope immediately recognizable for any fantasy reader not limited to the epic, sword and sorcery, or other-worldly subgenres: that of the hidden twin to the great city, the uncanny community nestled in the shadows of a metropolis. However, the fact that the contours of the world he builds are familiar ones that have been embroidered on by other authors does not prevent Miéville from marshaling his prodigious skills to produce powerfully original novel.

The catalyst that ignites the story’s plot is the theft of a prize specimen, a preserved giant squid, from the heart of London’s Natural History Museum. This is a crime that, both in its mechanics and in its goals, defies everyday logic and opens the door to the fantastic and—bizarrely—the fanatically religious. It sets off a chain reaction within the communities of the hidden, supernatural city that ultimately threatens the premature arrival of Armageddon. It also pulls young curator Billy Harrow, initially as innocent and unsuspecting as Neil Gaiman’s Richard Mayhew, into the center of the escalating conflict.

London is the oldest industrialized city on Earth, a city whose history as a teaming amalgamation of people has inspired more than one vision of a dark, magical underside hidden beneath or behind its streets (as referenced above, Neverwhere comes immediately to mind, but it is not alone). The ways in which Miéville gave this vision his own distinctive flavor, though, meant that it ultimately made little difference whether or not I had seen the trope before.

Miéville is a big star among the new generation of genre writers (two excellent Fantasy-Faction articles about his career so far can be found here and here). Although he is the author of fewer than ten novels, he is highly decorated; his works have won the Locus, BSFA, and Arthur C. Clarke awards, the last an impressive three times. The level of his prose alone helps explain why he has had such a positive critical reception. It also goes a long way toward giving color and life to the world he creates in Kraken:

“London was a graveyard haunted by dead faiths. A city and a landscape. A market laid on feudalisms. Gathering and hunting, little pockets of alterity, too, but most of all in the level Billy had come to live in a tilework of fiefdoms, theocratic duchies, zones and spheres of influences, over each of which some local despot, some criminal pope, sat watch. It was all who knew whom, gave access to what, greased which palms on what route to where.”

Miéville’s style is a crazy-quilt blending of the pop contemporary and the erudite. He makes up words like mnemophylax (angel of memory) and squidnapping (just what it sounds like). It uses the trappings of today’s world—cell phones, internet chat rooms—and combines them with fragments from legend, history, myth, and the products of a viral imagination. His decision to tie the magic of his world to theology, and populate the London underworld with various schismatic religious cults, worshiping everything from chaos to the giant squid itself, makes the novel’s setting both more bizarrely alien and troublingly familiar. The dangers of the world of Kraken echo the threats of fanaticism (from many sources), that simmer in our own world.

In the middle of all this, the novel’s plot swirls convolutedly. It is a mystery, and a satisfying one, in that I could not see the solution coming, although it was a variation on the classic, least suspected character, “butler did it” sort of revelation. It made me want to start reading from the beginning again to look for clues. Miéville also did a good job with the evolution of the protagonist’s character, as Billy went from ignorance of the circumstances into which he was thrown, to a kind of strength and mastery. It is nice to see a story in which the hero does not remain a buffeted victim of fate but also does not develop superhero-level badass-ery over an unconvincingly short period of time.

My one criticism of the plot would be that it does not tie the fates of the different characters together very well. Billy is not the only figure making his way through the events of the story, and although the plot’s resolution is the product of many characters’ efforts as each pursues his or her own set of priorities, I felt as if they were all operating very much in their own tracks. It seemed as if the characters were changed more by their encounter with the world itself than by their interaction with each other. The net effect was to create a book that felt very lonely and somewhat devoid of human contact—although perhaps that was Miéville’s intention. Kraken is a dark story, however you view it, but it opens a window on an alternative London well worth exploring.



  1. Avatar Dan the Funky Scarecrow says:

    More than anything else, ‘Kraken’ reminded me of the old Disney live action film, ‘One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing’. A darker, infinitely weirder, more blackly hilarious version, but the echoes were there for me all the same. I don’t say that as a dismissal, either. ‘Kraken’ has been one of my favourite novels I’ve read so far in 2011, and I doubt I’ll read many which I enjoy more.

    I could be misinterpreting the novel entirely, but I read it as a comedy rather than a true mystery or chiller. An affectionate, gloriously demented pastiche of everything from Lovecraft and his imitators to John Buchan and Dennis Wheatley. I had a big silly grin on my face from the first page to the last. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone with even a minor taste for the weirder end of the fantasy spectrum.

  2. Avatar Overlord says:

    Obviously this one got picked for June’s Fantasy Book Club read… if you want to join in:

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