Sunday, March 6, 2011

Squid vicious


China Mieville is one of my favorite authors. When the Twilight books were beginning to gather steam, I spent a lot of time squawking and flapping my hands around and speaking in a high pitched voice about how awful it was that crap like that became so popular, while there were other, much better works out there sadly not being read. Oh yeah? Like what? whichever unfortunate I polemicizing to would ask, and I would say, well, there's this author named China Mieville and his writing is really great and complex and unexpected, and they would go well what sort of stuff does he write? and then I would say well it's sort of like science fiction, but not really science fiction, but kind of like that, and rather fantastist but not really fantasy, with some futuristic yet very archaic elements and then the person would go well this has been really fascinating but I just set my own leg on fire so I could get out of this conversation, so if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go attend to that.

But anyway, China Mieville doesn't really need my help anymore, because if you'll notice on the top of his most recent book, Kraken, it says "New York Times Bestselling Author." Mieville is doing just fine.

But for what it's worth, when I saw this on the shelf in the new fiction section at the library, I let out a little squee of joy and snatched it up. True, Cthulu has been done to death, gone from serious to kitsch (the short stories on Tor.com, a plushie, even his own perfume line), and it was with some trepidation that I saw that Mieville was preparing to fling himself off the Lovecraftian plank, but I shouldn't have worried.

I think this is one of Mieville's most ambitious works yet. To someone who has read all of his fiction, there are a lot of similarities, both in content and style, but the reach of the novel is much bigger, as are the demands that Mieville is making on his reader.

But first, a quick summary - Kraken takes place, as does most of Mieville's work (excepting the Bas-Lag trilogy), in London, where Billy Harrow works as a curator in the London Museum of Natural History's Darwin Centre, where he specializes in preserving molluscs. Harrow got to work on the museum's only Archeteuthis, or giant squid, which is the big draw for the tour groups.

Until one day, Harrow and a tour group discover the the squid, jar and all, has somehow vanished, and in doing so, kicked off a chain of events that are rapidly leading to Armageddon.

There are two Londons in Kraken. As in Mieville's other works, particularly Un Lun Dun, King Rat, and his short stories in Looking for Jake, there's the London that most everyone wanders around in, and then there's the London under that. In Kraken, this London is populated by a dizzying panoply of sects, churches, cults, and other groups, all clutching to their own particular belief systems, and all determined, in one way or another, to fulfill their various prophesies.

Think of it as fundamentalism on steroids, with an extra helping of witchcraft and brutality. Kind of like if evangelical Baptists had been around in the Middle Ages, but had access to things like guns and the Internet at the same time.

The hapless Harrow finds himself being pursued by acolytes of the Church of God Kraken, who worship the giant squid and would very, very much like to find it, a mysterious branch of the police force dedicated to handling crimes relating to the cults, supernatural, and the like, a sadistic crime boss known as the Tattoo who is, in fact, a tattoo, and a pair of murderers called Goss and Subby who are two of the most frightening characters I've stumbled across in a book lately.

Scooped up by a Teuthist gone rogue named Dane who is determined to find the squid and thwart Armageddon, Billy begins a nightmarish journey across London, trying to track down the whereabouts of the squid and avoid dying in various extremely nasty ways, while London's various cults get ready to duke it out over who gets to have their Armageddon first.

As I said, Kraken requires a lot more from its readers than Mieville's earlier works. The Bas-Lag trilogy, while full of the same arcana, was still set in a universe that operated according to a certain set of more or less plausible rules. Here, Mieville is making them up as he goes, and the result is rougher, more hasty, and less seamless than his earlier works, but consequently more exhilarating. The writing is even less polished, and in some places, feels more overdone, as though it's missing a final scrub, but the sheer scale of the various myths, religions, scientific ephemera, and bits and pieces of history that Mieville is manipulating is impressive.

In many ways, Mieville's work is evocative of Neil Gaiman's, particularly Gaiman's series and later novel Neverwhere (Mieville's Goss and Subby seem to echo Gaiman's two assassins, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar.) But Mieville's work is more complex, more willing to tip itself off the deep end and trust the reader will accept it. This can be wearing at times - for example, characters trying to explain who the murderous Goss and Subby are just give up and splutter that it's Goss and Subby, for Chrissakes and leave it at that, as though Mieville couldn't come up with an explanation either, and is willing to simply let them exist.

But if you're prepared to go flying blind into Mieville's nightmare London, Kraken is a hell of a ride. I find it best to read Mieville's work straight through, let it sit for a day or two to percolate, then pick it up again and Wiki my way through the pages, looking up the little breadcrumbs and hints that he scatters through his pages.

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