- By: China Mieville
- Rating: 5 (out of 5)
There’s a giant squid, preserved in a giant bottle, in a museum in London. It’s the museum’s most popular exhibit. It’s Billy Harrow’s turn to be tour guide. Nothing special, just another day… except when Billy’s tour group gets to the squid room, there is no squid. It’s gone, gigantic bottle and all. How does one steal a giant squid? Where would they put it? And, more importantly, why?
So begins a saga where nothing is sacred, because everything is sacred. It’s a story of belief, of cults and crackpots and criminal overlords, of how men create myths and what the myths do once given their heads. But mostly it’s a story about London.
Now, Mieville is known for making setting, and particularly cities, characters in their own right. It’s one of the things I love about his writing. With London, however, it’s a challenge one should not take lightly. London is one of the primeval cities. It has depths beyond its material bits and bobs. One can’t dismiss London as simply a setting, especially not in a fantasy of faith and belief and human nature. London has, in its time, ruled the world. That leaves a mark.
I suspect everyone has their own London, their interpretation of the great city. You need not have seen London to know London. This is Mieville’s London: complicated, twisty, full of secrets and wishes and the detritus of thousands of years of humanity.
As the story delved into the other London, the London seen only from the corner of the eye, I was reminded of my first other-London: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The stories are vastly different, but there are significant parallels. They are both entrenched in magic and history, with their clans and superstitions and laws hiding beneath the surface. Even the villians parallel, though I suspect an intentional homage on Mieville’s part: Goss and Subby are this world’s Vandemar and Croup, otherworldly wolves amidst the sheep, frightful impossibilities made flesh. There is a recognition, in both works, that London is more than just a spot on the map.
In Neverwhere, to reach London Below you abandon your place in London Above. In Kraken, the two intertwine; shadow-London is not separate from true-London. Once entered, Kraken’s other-London is a hotbed of faiths shaped by humans who are shaped by their faiths. There is much sacred about this story; gods are involved, holy wars are fought. London itself is a faith, in its way; it has its worshippers. They are, as one might guess, essential to the story. Without London, saviors and saints would lack anchor, adrift in their crises of faith.
As with London, there are depths to this book. The twisting, writhing plot echoes the essence of the title character, winding around itself until everything’s connected – but not easily and never in a straight line. It can be confusing at times, but given its subject matter, I find that part of the charm.
As an urban fantasy, this falls solidly under weird-fic. Tentacles, tattoos, blood and ink magic are significant. At the same time, it’s an ode to high fantasy with its rituals, cults, and cultures. There’s a pretty classic British mystery in there too, often in the background but never lost.
Mieville’s creations are fascinating and detailed; everything is more complex than it seems on the surface. The arc and essence of the story is echoed in the arcs of object, character and setting. The sea owns a townhouse. Familiars have a union. And through it all there is London, both support and shackle, the unintentional center of the universe at the end(s) of the world.
My favorite of all the crazy characters has to be the mnemophylax. An angel of memory, it has only a small amount of page-time but a significant impact on the story. It’s the symbol of what can happen when history itself takes its own initiative, successes and failures both. My second-favorite character is probably the Kraken, but I can’t say why without spoilers.
There are some rough edges in the story, and some threads not well handled, but these are minor. The story is both fast-paced and long, and this makes for sketchy detail in places, but I found that this often helped rather than hindered. That said, it is inherently a metaphorical piece; even the most basic of plot elements can have unexpected meaning. Some people find this frustrating; I am not one of those people, but I recognize that not everyone squees over metaphor. Then again, it’s Mieville; I expect nothing less.