A Whale of a Tale

Super-writer China Miéville brings fantasy to the mainstream with this hefty page-turner

When the Darwin Centre’s prize exhibit, an eight-meter giant squid, goes missing, biologist Billy Harrow is drawn into an other-London of battling cults and competing Armageddonim. In Kraken (Del Ray, 2010), the world is hurtling to some kind of apocalypse—but which one?

China Miéville is a Dungeons & Dragons super-nerd, but with an Oxford and Harvard education and a failed run for Parliament. Miéville combines that impressive background with a love of pulp horror and its monsters.

Miéville broke out with Perdido Street Station (Del Ray, 2000), the flawed yet majestic dark fantasy that hauled the genre out of its Tolkienesque quagmire. He quickly established himself as a unique voice in the growing “New Weird” subgenre, then branched out into children’s literature (Un Lun Dun, Del Ray, 2007) and noir (The City & The City, Del Ray, 2009); next year’s Embassytown will be hard science fiction. Regardless of genre, Miéville is marked by his expressive, baroque style and his inventiveness.

Those attributes are on brilliant display in Kraken. Miéville tosses off great ideas as if they come 10 to a dollar: origamists who fold reality, spectral cops, a shabti strike leader, a sentient ocean and dog-headed Chaos Nazis. But while his imagination is dazzling, the book eventually sags under the accumulated weight of tangled plot lines.

Plotting has never been Miéville’s strong suit; he favors complex and unconventional story structures, and his plots tend to run away from him. Big reveals and climaxes succeed one another for the final hundred pages as curtains behind curtains are ripped away. It’s intoxicating, perhaps too much so.

But this mess is never boring. The book is read-500-pages-in-two-sittings gripping. As such, Miéville dials his style back a bit, retreating from the Faulknerian density of his previous works. (He only switches to concrete poetry once, for example.) This streamlining serves the plot well, whisking the reader from one masterstroke to the next, making it seem like Miéville’s take on the summer blockbuster.

Funny, disturbing, bizarre and terrifying, often all on one page, Kraken only occasionally seems overstuffed with ideas. But this is a book that forces you to forgive its faults. It can reference H.P. Lovecraft, Farscape and Carl Linnaeus without stretching. It achieves the weight of the greatest urban fantasies without their torpor (Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, William Morrow, 2001) or self-importance (Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Vintage, 1998). The title of the book, referring to its tentacled MacGuffin, could just as easily refer to the storytelling, which thrashes about haphazardly, yet is still breathtakingly badass. It takes a mercurial, stomach-punching genius to stir such reactions. And with Miéville, we have one.

Kraken ★★★★☆