I just finished reading China Miéville’s novel Kraken. Let me foreshadow my critique by saying that his most recent novel, Embassytown, is already on its way to me from Amazon. It will definitely be among the books I read this year.
Since Kraken is only the second Miéville novel I’ve read, it’s hard for me to know where to place it on the Miéville Weirdness Index. Certainly, The City & the City was out there, but at its heart it’s a detective novel, and once you get your head around the premise, the weirdness fades away somewhat. But I suspect Kraken falls higher on the MWI than The City & the City. Assuming the MWI is logarithmic, like Richter scale, with each successive MWI number being 10 times weirder than the previous one, then if The City & the City is, say, 6.8 on the MWI, I think Kraken must be at least 7.5, if not close to 8.
Which is not to say it’s not a really enjoyable novel. Miéville is just a fantastic writer: so poetic and original, and yet very readable. I particularly love the way he approaches dialogue. So often I feel that writers change the way characters speak to make it easier for the reader to follow. But Miéville’s dialogue is completely and often jarringly natural (if that makes any sense). The effect is that the dialogue seems to flow better, but sometimes it’s harder to follow because he’s using spoken rather than written syntax. It makes the reader work a little harder, but it lends authenticity to the characters.
The novel is set in London, and the characters are unapologetic in their Londonness. If you haven’t been exposed to at least some Cockney rhyming slang, you may find yourself wondering what the hell is going on some of the time. My grandfather was Cockney, so I was able to pick up on some of that; even so, there were times when I knew I was reading a local idiom but didn’t catch precisely what it meant. I love that. Miéville is British, and he didn’t dumb down the dialogue for English readers outside of Britain. This may put some readers off, but I think the novel is far better for it.
The basic premise is that there’s a vast underground scene where certain people have special powers (or “knacks,” as Miéville calls them), of which the “muggles” are completely oblivious. There is also a plethora of cult religions, among them the “Krakenists” who worship the giant squid (see where the weirdness is going now?). In parallel with these knackers and cults is a special and very secretive police unit called FSRC (the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit) that keeps tabs on all these strange goings on. When the giant squid housed at the London Natural History Museum goes missing, it turns out to be a big deal to the Krakenists (whom everyone suspects are the perpetrators) and a sign of the impending apocalypse. I know it all sounds very strange and improbable, and of course it is, but Miéville has a knack (see what I did there?) for drawing you in and making the weird seem almost normal.
I wouldn’t recommend Kraken or Miéville to just anyone (you don’t end up being categorized as part of the New Weird genre by being particularly accessible), but if you like speculative fiction or fantasy, or if you’re a fan of excellent and highly original writing, then you’ll probably enjoy Kraken.