Kraken is a romp, a riotous journey through the imagination and wit of its author, China Mieville. It defies genre classification, but will most likely be found in the sections of book stores and blogs reserved for speculative fiction, if only because of Mieville's previous works (which arguably transcend a lot of genre boundaries as well) and because the book is about the end of the world, and magic plays a part in that end. But like that elusive field called "literary fiction," Kraken uses genre as a foundation and then builds upon it, going places that are interesting for their existence, not just because of the ease of categorizing them, naming them, and filing them away. Kraken is proof that Mieville has become, somewhat like Neil Gaiman before him, renowned for his ideas and defying of genre. But Mieville is far more challenging than Gaiman, and while Gaiman often closes out his works with a wink a gesture towards optimism, Mieville always points out that optimism is a precious commodity and the moments where it wins out are to be treasured before they completely fade.
At first blush, Kraken appears to owe a great deal to Gaiman's Neverwhere: Kraken is set in a London that exists just below the surface of the one we think we know, and its story revolves around a young man who gets accidentally mixed up in events beyond his understanding but with dire consequences for the city (if not the world). Meet Billy Harrow, a specialist in preservation at the Darwin Centre at the Natural History museum in London. Billy is so good at his job at preserving specimens of life from around the world in jars of formaldehyde solution that his coworkers and he joke that he was the first test tube baby, born from a jar. His masterpiece is the preserved giant squid that is the centerpiece of a great display at the Darwin Centre, one that brings visitors from around the world to see the most perfectly preserved example of one of the most mysterious creatures on the planet. And then one day, as Billy leads a tour through the Centre, they discover that the giant squid is missing, along with its giant jar and all of its preservative solution, stolen in broad daylight from the center of the museum without anyone noticing.
And thus Billy is thrust into the steaming underbelly of London as heresiopolis, Mieville's neologism for the great melting pot of cults and sects that form an underground in London as complex and perhaps as dangerous as the criminal underground. Billy's psychopomp is Dane Parnell, exile of the Church of God, Kraken, who believes that the missing giant squid is an avatar of his deity and who is determined to discover who defiled his god with the theft. But the giant squid defies detection, pulling Billy and Dane deeper and deeper into this strange world of belief and the power belief brings. And it turns out that every source they turn to for possible information about the squid can provide no help, but they all are convinced of the impending apocalypse, the destruction of the world somehow involved with the squid and visions of fire. In fact, the communal emotional tide of London is turning odd, as all the usual fortunetellers—astrologers and card readers and so forth—see the doom coming, but are unable to pinpoint details. London itself prepares for its doom, and its inhabitants who cannot touch the belief-based sources of knowledge feel the mood shift and , much as weeks without rain can cause the entire mood of a city to turn.
All of this acts as the canvas on which Mieville just throws ideas, keeping them connected to the advancement of the plot, but ranging through the wide expanse of his fascinating imagination. For instance, Billy is contacted by a section of the British police force specifically designated to attend to problems that arise from the strange cults and sects that roam through the city. Most of their own force don't even know that they exist or what it is exactly they do, but the team that meets with Billy—a constable, a former clergyman who understands how belief works, and what can only be described as a cynical magician in a policewoman's uniform—are determined to find the thieves and stop the apocalypse they can feel coming on. Billy is also approached by evil side of belief, as the city's cult kingpin sends his dreaded hatchetmen Goss and Subby after Billy, since he seems to know the most about the squid. Unfortunately, over the centuries, anyone who has run into Goss and Subby generally ends up dying in particularly brutal ways, including being folded like origami. And the overlord they are working for is really a sentient tattoo, inked onto the back of an unwilling carrier.
As Billy and Dane fend off their pursuers and try to find the squid, Mieville demonstrates an explicit joy in the language and the ideas of belief and faith. The novel runs amuck with ideas, most of which could individually inform a single work by a less skilled storyteller. But Mieville loosely captures these ideas, letting them pull the reader pell-mell into this bizarre and half-known world, rushing toward some sort of conclusion much as London rushes towards its fiery doom. The passages are breathtakingly written, and the ideas that unfold are blackly humorous and terrifying, and sometimes both at the same time. Mieville is also able to work in some political theorizing as well, a thread that does not stick out as being misplaced in this tapestry of a surreal and abnatural London. And buried within the craziness are sly commentaries on the human condition which, in the hands of a reader less swept away, might have offered clues to the resolution of the mystery that is the backbone of Kraken. Every scene, nearly every passage, just drips with life and power that make this novel a joy to read.
Even at its conclusion, Mieville refuses to just settle, twisting the narrative process in subtle and powerful ways, still playing games with the nature of knowledge and belief. Ultimately, Mieville pulls off the best magic trick of all: the reader sets down the finished novel with a simultaneous sigh of relief that it's over and wish that there might be more. Kraken will be on many lists of the year's best, both in genre and without. It should be the novel that, despite Mieville's brilliant and award-winning career thus far, pulls him from the gutters of genre fiction into an author to be treasured for a long time to come. It is no wonder that Mieville and Michael Chabon are friends, even though their careers seem to be going in different directions: Chabon uses the prestige of early acclaim and awards to demonstrate the power of genre fiction removed from the wrappings and dross of its very name, while Mieville has based his work on the mixing of genre and distilling from it work that transcends and deserves a larger audience. This is a novel that I will return to many times.