Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review: Kraken

China Mieville is what I would consider a top tier fantasy writer;  Up there with the likes of Martin, Rothfuss, Kay, Abercrombie, and Bakker. A guy known to crank out quality works that I consistently want to read.  With Mieville I always try to make sure I read at least one of his works per year.  Up for 2011 is Kraken an urban fantasy tale set in London.

Billy Harrow is a pretty ordinary guy.  He works at the Darwin Center in the Natural History Museum as a cephalopod specialist.  One of his tasks is to conduct tours through the museum.  On the day the reader meets Billy, he is doing just that, leading a tour through the center, saving the museum's prize piece, a giant squid, as the grand finale of the tour, when he realizes the squid, tank and all, has vanished.  No incriminating tire tracks from a fork lift, no tell-tale drops of embalming fluid on the floor, no wet foot prints, just vanished as if it was never there to begin with.

Billy soon discovers that the disappearing squid is just the beginning of events that will vastly alter his life.  Like it or not, Billy is soon caught up in a struggle between a variety of mysterious, magical, and mythical forces.  It turns out the missing giant squid happens to be the god of a cult, who are hoping to track down their God-Kraken so they can have their prophesied Armageddon. There are numerous other forces at play here too, as every magical, strange and mysterious force in London seems to want to get their hands on the missing Kraken, or failing that, Billy, whom everyone seems to think is the key to the God's whereabouts.

Mieville is a writer of many skills, but I normally find myself drawn to his works for his wonderfully weird fantastical ideas.  I'm always impressed with his ability to create fantasy elements that are unique, and mind-blowingly cool; I'm very happy to report that there's an abundance of great fantastical elements at play in Kraken.  My favorite among these were the "knacks" or special abilities many of the characters possessed.  One character had some telepathic abilities which were used in interesting ways, and I especially liked the "Londonmancers" who draw power from the city itself.

As great as the fantastical elements were, I was slightly surprised to find myself more impressed and drawn in by the characters that populate the story.  There's a diverse group of characters in Kraken, and they are all well developed and came across as feeling vibrant and alive.  Mieville achieves this high level of character development by using the tried and true technique of showing what they are like rather than telling.  A lot of  this is done through fantastically written dialog which not only sounds incredibly realistic, but also gives the reader a strong sense of the character's personality through the way they speak and interact with others.

While there's talking tattoos, an old Egyptian spirit that travels from one statue to the next, magicians, assassins, and also characters of less magical origins, I found myself most impressed with Kath Collingswood, a knacked cop and member of the FSRC, a branch of the London police that looks into cases of the more fantastical nature.  Collingswood is a character with some serious attitude and swagger, and anytime she graces a page, the scene crackles with energy.  Collingswood is a testament to Mieville's ability to create great characters, and while there are many great ones in Kraken, for me, Collingswood is a great example of the brilliant character development on display in this novel.

Even though I enjoyed and connected with many of the characters in Kraken, I had a hard time doing the same with the main character, Billy Harrow.  I never felt like I had a strong image of him in my head, or a good sense of what kind of person he is.  I don't think this is any fault of Mieville's, especially considering how well developed many of the other characters are.  I think it is more a product of the fact that Billy gets caught up in the events of the narrative, and the character is more of a reactor rather than an actor.  He is consistently forced to respond to strange events rather than making things happen.  As a character Billy is always changing, growing and developing throughout the story that it was hard to get a grip on him as a character.

Out of any of my previous China Mieville reading experiences, I would say that this is his lightest book, aside from his YA novel Un Lun Dun.  That being said,there is still plenty of the signature dark and weird fantasy elements that makes this book have that Mieville feel...Goss and Subby anyone?  Still, I was surprised to find a fair amount of humor in this book.  Sure, most of it is dark humor, but comedy is an element not typically found in a China Mieville novel, and its a welcome addition in Kraken.

Though Kraken isn't my favorite China Mieville novel, that honor would go to The Scar, it is still an incredibly impressive novel.  Aside from being wonderfully entertaining, Kraken is proof that Mieville is still growing and developing as a writer.  His character development has clearly taken a leap forward, and his willingness to add new elements like comedy to the mix shows that he's willing to try new things in order to achieve new heights.  As always, Mieville's imaginative and weird fantasy elements are mind blastingly awesome.  If the guy keeps improving at this rate his skills will achieve Kraken-esque proportions. 

Devoted China Mieville readers will be happy to know that Kraken is another great installment in the man's already impressive bibliography.  For those who are new to the author, I think Kraken would serve as a great introduction to the author and his writing.  Either way, new reader or old, this is one you don't want to miss.

Grade: A-

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