I got an advanced reading copy of this book through the Amazon Vine program. I have previously read Mieville's King Rat (loved it), UnLunDun (liked it), and The City and The City (tough read, but interesting). I have mixed feelings about this book. Some of it is quite funny and creative, but a lot of it is just annoying.
You follow a number of different characters throughout this book. The main character is Billy, who is a curator at the Darwin Center. He runs tours of the facility in addition to other duties and the main draw on his tour is a giant squid that has been preserved in a large tank. Only on his current tour, something is wrong, the squid is missing. How does a giant squid just "go missing" from a giant tank? Well two police officers that specialize in a rather abnormal branch of the police force suspect it may all be the fault of that silly religious squid group. They pull Billy into a crazy underground world in London that's full of magic, mayhem, and numerous religious cults. Billy will find that it may be up to him to stop the apocalypse itself.
I liked the first couple chapters of this book and enjoyed the ending. The concept behind this novel is quirky and interesting and definitely creative. All of the characters are completely off the wall. You have Tattoo, the gangster-like character that exists only as a tattoo on a catatonic man's back. Collingsworth, a slight female police officer who has a bad case of tourette's. And a billion other incredibly crazy characters. The overall concept behind this story is very thoughtful. Basically Mieville is exploring the concept of people making things happen because that is what they believe to be true.
There are also a ton of things I did not like about this novel. It is a difficult and time-consuming read. The chapters are erratic in length and the viewpoint switches between numerous characters. There are about a million plot lines with as many characters going on at once. Then there is the Brit-speak, this is especially bad in the beginning of the novel but gets better as it goes on.
Mieville also just throws so many random facts at the reader that after a while (between all the Brit-speak and random junk) my eyes would just glaze over and my thoughts start to wander. Next thing I would be yawning and cursing this stupid book because it never really sticks to the story or gets to the point in any but the most meandering of ways. This was a book I constantly had to push myself through, I had to concentrate to get it to hold my interest. Which is really a pity because between all the extraneous junk, there is an interesting and darkly humorous story in here.
The other bothersome thing is a similarity to other works already out there. The setting reminded me of Neverwhere by Gaiman or The Haunting of Alaizabel Crane by Chris Wooding (I know different time period). The deal with all the gods reminded some of Gaiman's American Gods. The crazy wackiness with which random events and different deities popped up reminded me of Simon Green's Nightside series. And in my opinion all the aforementioned works are much more well done. Anyone who compares Mieville's writing style to Gaiman is on crack, Gaiman writes an absolutely wonderful story and Mieville, while creative and innovative, tends to not focus on the story itself. The setting between Neverwhere and this book are somewhat similar though.
So should you read it? If you liked The City and The City this book is written in the same somewhat fractured and strange style, so you may enjoy it. Just know that this book will require a lot of patience to get through. You will have to struggle through Brit Speak and weed out all the random excess of data Mieville throws at you. It is creative and darkly funny but a tough read. Personally it just wasn't my thing and put me off picking up any of Mieville's future works.
The Kraken, a giant preserved squid, is stolen from London's Natural History Museum while Billy Harrow is giving a tour. The disappearance pulls Billy into a London much darker and more magical than he has ever known. Worse, Billy is at the center of this dark London. The Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit, the ruthless Tattoo, a pair called Goss and Subby, and a Kraken cult are all after Billy for their own reasons. And poor Billy doesn't have a clue what's going on.
Well, there's been a lot of author buzz going this year and the same names pop up every time. Although I most often talk (or cheer on) Paolo Bacigalupi, I was no less aware of the fellow authors also generating buzz. One of these names in particular I had been meaning to read for awhile, but had managed to put off despite hearing great things from friends and reviews: China Miéville. I thought that The City & The City was going to be my first Miéville novel, but somehow it got shoved to the side even as the nominations and awards came rolling in. (The City & The City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Award. It was also shortlisted for the Nebula and Hugo.)
When I chanced into getting a copy of KRAKEN, I was thrilled. I wanted to read Miéville and the hardcover was dark, beautiful in my hands with that moody cover.
Really, that covers the feel of KRAKEN very story, too: beautiful, dark, and moody. And clever, let's not forget clever. Miéville is maybe too smart (and cool) for his own good. He mixes cocktail words with pop culture references with envious ease. As an example, I've never seen the word "exegesis" before outside of a literature classroom and yet Miéville finds a perfectly plausible, perfectly apt way to fit the word in--and this is just pages after a discussion on Tribbles and STAR TREK! (His teasing descriptions of nerd culture are spot on and enjoyable.) However, Miéville's cleverness extends to more than his diction and allusions. Sometimes I'd come across some prose so strange that I initially would want to hate it, but end up loving it desperately:
"There was a hubbub in Billy's head all night. He would hardly call so raging and discombobulated a torrent of images a dream. Call it vomit, call it a gush." [p250]
I'm not even quite sure how Miéville forces this grudging respect. Perhaps it's the overall feel of dark comedy jittering through the pages. Perhaps it's the strange balance that let's the plot be both absurd and menacing. Yet some of these choices dance that fine edge between being enjoyable and just being convoluted. It's hard to bring just the right amount of chaos into a story and at times KRAKEN can be a little overwhelming.
First of all, the cast is huge. The factions are numerous. The plot threads swirl and intertwine out like the tentacles of a kraken with only poor Billy as the anchor. (Yes, the mariner puns are intentional, but I'll try to restrain myself.) The only real issue I have with this book is that I liked Billy's relative normalcy, but he didn't function well enough as an anchor for the story for me. My mind felt like it was bobbing along these plotlines like waves and sometimes it was very difficult to breathe with the waves crashing down on me. I was drifting without my anchor, because Billy just couldn't compete with characters like Collingswood (who, like her or hate her, easily had the best voice in the book) and Dane. My brain just wanted to follow them off the page sometimes.
Despite any trouble I had with the book, I loved it. There's something too clever and too bold, to not love despite the moody pace. From the dialogue, to the vividly drawn cast, to the tangled story... Well, actually I'm rendered fairly incoherent. To say anything is to spoil it, because Miéville says it in such a specific way.
I can easily see how this tale will rub some people the wrong way: there's a unapologetic cleverness that almost seems 'too clever,' but I love KRAKEN all the more for its lack of apology. Not to mention the sheer artistry.