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Super-natural Born Killers

China Miéville imagines a cornucopia of bizarre London underground activity in Kraken

By Jenn Northington | Posted 6/30/2010

China Miéville

Kraken

God has disappeared, and the end is nigh. Except in this case, god is a giant squid and no one is sure what the coming end will look like. British speculative fiction author China Miéville's newest novel, Kraken, is a frenetic apocalyptic whodunit that surprises at every turn.

Billy Harrow, curator for the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre, finds himself in the crosshairs of London's supernatural community after the giant preserved squid in the Centre's main exhibit vanishes without trace or trail. The squid turns out to be an object of veneration for an underground cult (yes, you read that correctly). In a London where devotion creates deities and metaphors create magic, the missing specimen becomes the sorcerous equivalent of a nuclear warhead. Every psychic, prophet, and intuitive in the city agrees that if it isn't recovered, it means complete and utter destruction--Armageddon with a twist of formaldehyde. Despite his genuine ignorance, Billy, the caretaker of the squid, is pegged as the key to its whereabouts and powers, and must quickly learn to survive in the underbelly of paranormal London.

Dodging would-be-friends and foes alike, Billy and his unlikely allies--Dane Parnell, an excommunicate from the squid-worshipping cult, and Wati, a disembodied Egyptian spirit-turned-union organizer--race to locate and retrieve the kidnapped deity. Miéville juggles a huge cast of characters, half a dozen subplots, and a London gone mad with impressive ease. The story moves quickly, but it's easy to be stopped short by the details spawned from his deranged imagination: an enchanted iPod that sings to itself; an embassy for the ocean; cult-collectors comparing notes over beers; a union strike of sorcerers' familiars; a villain whose vicious methods range from devouring people whole to grievous bodily harm by origami.

The players are equally varied and ingenious. The city itself is not just home to deities and "knackers" (those with magical talents) run amok, but has powers and disciples, called Londonmancers, of its own. In homage to London in particular and urban environments in general, Miéville waxes poetic on the symbiosis between cities and their denizens and creates a landscape that is both sentient and dangerous.

On the home team: Marge, who unexpectedly develops from a minor character into quite possibly the most relatable figure in the book, is an acquaintance of Billy's sucked in by tragic circumstance and her own stubborn nature. As she delves deeply into the previously hidden side of London, she risks sanity and life to get to the bottom of this bizarre imbroglio. The police's Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit (FSRC)--Chief Inspector Baron, cult profiler Patrick Vardy, and sullen constable Kath Collingswood, who has a "knack" for persuasion, among other things--is less interested in the squid itself and more concerned with maintaining order in an increasingly restive city. After an unsuccessful attempt to recruit Billy to their ranks, they are left scrambling to identify the culprit, hunt down the missing squid, and find Billy before his vicious pursuers catch up to him.

The opposition is dangerous and well-armed. The Tattoo, a supernatural gangster with old grudges and ambitious plans, will stop at nothing to get the squid for himself, and brings in heavyweights Goss and Subby--two of the most chilling villains this reader has met--as well as assassins of every stripe to hunt Harrow. Goss and Subby themselves defy summary, and are best experienced on the page. As their paths cross and tangle, all involved find that nothing is as they expect, even when they expect the worst.

Readers familiar with Miéville's previous works may be surprised by the lack of politics, but not to worry. Never one to shy away from big questions or statements, this time Miéville takes religion along for a ride. Faith plays a pivotal role in Kraken; indeed, the power of faith is the underlying premise of the entire novel, and one person's ability to believe harder than another becomes a key weapon. Doctrine and dogma, however, take a beating as various (fictional, one can only hope) cults are introduced and then lampooned. The result is a balance between satire and reverence that leaves room on both sides for a reader's own preferences.

Unlike Miéville's previous novel, The City and the City, which while excellent hardly qualifies as speculative fiction, Kraken is a solid and epic contribution to the genre. Good versus evil: check. Heroic, doomed-to-failure missions: check. Battles galore: check. Grand sweeping conclusion: double-check. Add Miéville's own knack for taking the world we know and turning it on its ears in unexpected ways, and you've got one hell of a summer read.

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