on 8 May 2010
China Mieville, I've always said, is a genius. I think I need to get that out of the way before I carry on with this review. He is possessed of the most toweringly wicked imagination, fearsome skills of characterisation and plot development and the ability to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, in my case, on occasion, literally. If I were sad enough to sit and write down my top 10 fiction books of all time, 'The City and the City', 'Perdido Street Station' and 'The Scar' would be somewhere amongst them. I've read his book of short stories, 'Looking for Jake', about five times now. And I hate short stories.
However, even genuises have their off-days, and that seems to be what's happened here. I say "seems" because I can only guess at what prompted Mieville to approach this book in the way he did. This is not China Mieville, this is Clive Barker on acid. It's completely mad, perhaps the result of a bet as to how much weirdness Mieville could cram into 400 pages.
The concept is promising, and indeed a short synopsis would sound equally appealing. Mieville's writing style, whilst an acquired taste due to the author's of chain-of-consciousness prose interspersed with quirky colloquialisms, is rich and beautifully delivered. There's humour too, and several laugh-out loud moments, the politically incorrect outbursts of the virtual retro police officers being a case in point. However, a few dozen pages into the novel things start to go bad and the key problem quickly becomes evident. This problem, in summary, is that anything can happen.
Mieville has created a world entirely without rules and without boundaries. This sounds exciting, especially bearing in mind the author's formidable powers of imagination, but what it actually does is rob the plot of all suspense. Virtually every character possesses a range of occult abilities so powerful, wide-reaching and diverse that no situation provides any type of challenge. Magical abilities, individuals and objects are created on demand, sometimes at the rate of several per page, apparently as a cheap method of furthering the plot.
How is item X, huge and heavy, transported from point A to point B? Well, that's tricky, a nice little puzzle for the reader... Actually, no, it's teleportation. Character X died so how come people are receiving messages from him? That's a tough one, let me think... Don't bother, he just returned from the dead. How do these two baddies enter a house without anybody seeing? I wonder, maybe they - Forget all that, it's easy, someone just folded them up into a tiny parcel and posted them through the letter box. Feeling cheated yet? OK, so how will this police officer find the information she needs from the crime scene? I get it, forget the clever stuff, let's go straight to the invisible flying cartoon pig that knows everything (I'm not joking). And so on and so forth. The sheer quantity of bizarre powers and impossible characters being introduced as the story progresses is on occasion so great that the reader finds themselves lost in a miasma of unconstrained weirdness where plot, characterisation and purpose are not so much secondary as completely lost in the confusion.
There were other problems with the book, not least the bizarrely bi-polar character development of our hero, Billy Harrow, yet in comparison to the anything-goes gung-ho plot-busting surrealism they were rendered almost moot.
Less is more, especially where weirdness is concerned, and I hope that Mieville's next novel, which I'm already looking forward to whatever it may be, bears witness to this ideology.
I still think he's a genius.
on 19 June 2010
I was wondering when China first started writing this. I discovered him with 'Perdido Street Station' and read on from there, I read King Rat after 'The City and the City' and noticed his maturing as a writer. Reading Kraken, over ages, believe me,I wanted to put this book down so many times I can't tell you, but I'm a fan, so I stuck with it. Seems to me that either his Editor has said 'You'll make more money if you dumb down and get on the Gaiman train' , or this was the book after King Rat.
There are of course the Marxist underlays and the quiet jokes to the knowing, but my biggest complaint is that I felt a little bit insulted by this, there is plagerism (and that is an opinion, not an accusation) and the general impression that he wasn't really trying.
I saw England play Algeria last night and felt the same way.
Personally, I blame the publisher, I read Alistair Reynolds 'Terminal World' and felt the same way.
Don't force our greatest writers to churn out pulp, I'll wait for the masterpiece.
on 12 July 2010
First off, it should be known that my biggest fear is the sea; specifically its dark depths and the creatures that lurk within. Like with many people I presume, because I fear this so vehemently, I am at the same time incredibly drawn to it and seek it wherever I can in fiction. Take the scene in James Cameron's The Abyss that sees Ed Harris' character make his slow descent into an abyssal, pitch black canyon on the floor of the ocean. I can watch the scene with ease, but at the same time it scares me magnificently, and compels me beyond belief.
The point to be taken is: I love sea monsters. Miéville's The Scar - an infinitely better book than this one - concerns in large part a gigantic sea monster from another universe called an Avanc; the inclusion and dealing of which I loved (one excellent aspect is Miéville's choice to never describe the creature in any detail; allowing my imagination to run wild with it - making the fear potential increase enormously). So when I saw that Miéville's latest work was to be titled Kraken, I immediately built up high hopes.
All in all though, I'm sad to say that I was let down. I love Miéville (and I haven't even read Perdido Street Station or The City & The City yet), but his latest effort falls considerably short of his abilities in my opinion. New Weird in style Miéville certainly is, but this all too weird for my tastes. From animal servants picketing for their rights to an omniscient invisible flying cartoon pig, this grasps completely in the wrong direction for an altogether ludicrous kind of strange. Add to this a plot full of questions to which we are given all too easy and entirely unsatisfying answers and it doesn't amount to much.
Unused is the full potential of dealing with a sea monster as utterly terrifying and infamous as the giant squid. I'm sure it isn't Miéville's intent to scare here, but I figured I would succumb anyway, due to my phobia, but nothing succeeded in scaring me to any degree, save perhaps the idea of living out Billy's Kraken dreams.
The whole thing just comes off as one big bad joke; or rather a continual and unrelenting series of bad jokes, punctuated with pointless oddness and unnecessary absurdity. The fact that it could be seen as humour does not excuse the strangeness in my opinion.
There is by no means nothing to salvage. There are points, mostly when Miéville is describing the Gods that exist and the cult religions that follow them, that he hits on some gorgeously Lovecraftian ideas and musings, like with an extract of a `holy' text that Billy (the protagonist) reads:
"We cannot see the universe. We are in the darkness of a trench, a deep cut, dark water heavier than earth, presences lit by our own blood, little biolumes, heroic and pathetic Promethei too afraid or weak to steal fire but still able to glow. Gods are among us and they care nothing and are nothing like us. This is how we are brave: we worship them anyway."
The huge potential of passages like this is never developed further, and all my dreams of being crippled and engulfed by fear are lost with this failing. Kraken is by no means a disaster; it's just not up to Miéville's usual high standard, nor as good an execution as I feel the subject matter deserved. 5/10 (2.5 stars)
A giant, dead squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London goes missing, to the consternation of its curator, Billy Harrow, and that of the police officers of the FSRC (Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes unit). The police think Billy might be a link. So does the Church of God Kraken, which is unhappy with one of their deities being half-inched. Less happily, so do Goss and Subby, murderers and pain-merchants for hire. Half of London is out looking for the squid, for its disappearance is related to fevered dreams and portents of apocalypse. The squid must be found, or the world will burn.
Kraken is China Mieville's seventh novel, and probably his most barking mad book to date. Kraken is a total one-eighty from the measured, focused crime noir that was his previous novel, The City and the City, and shares many more elements from his young adult-aimed Un Lun Dun, such as the fantasised (much more lightly here) depiction of London and a whimsical sense of humour (not to mention the short chapters). Where Un Lun Dun stumbled slightly in its opening chapters with Mieville trying to be down with the kids a little too hard, Kraken aims its culture and pop references more clearly at geekdom, with multiple references to TV shows like American Gothic, Lexx and Battlestar Galactica ("The revamp, obviously,"), a number of Moorcock references and a number of plot points related to Star Trek. There's also some nods at Gaiman, particularly Neverwhere (which also inspired elements of Un Lun Dun and King Rat), with Goss and Subby coming over as worthy homages to the latter's Croup and Vandemar, only less pleasant.
For a book that's so satisfyingly bananas in places, it makes you work hard in others. Mieville gropes for a prose style in the opening hundred pages or so, meaning that the opening part of the book is delivered in short, staccato bursts, one moment enjoyable, the next annoyingly obtuse to the point of turgidness. Mieville has never been an easy read, but he's also never been one with problems of flow in his books, and Kraken presents the first issues with this that I've come across in his work. Luckily, once the book shakes off its jitters and gets down to business, these problems fly out the window as well-defined characters, enjoyably weird factions and an ever more engrossing plot come to the fore. Along the way we meet some fantastic characters and creations, from Wati the stone-bound spirit to the loathsome Goss and Subby to the monstrous being known only as the Tattoo, and events culminate in an ending that is satisfying, if a little predictable (and the "It's the end, whoops, no it isn't, here's another one, and one after that too!" nature of the multiple endings is slightly wearying). Previous Mieville novels have perhaps been overall more cohesive, but ending an extended narrative seems to be something Mieville has struggled with in the past (his short fiction is notably better at this, most notably The Tain). Here he shows some true flair in his ending.
Kraken (****) takes a while to get going but once it does, it fires on all cylinders until it reaches a solid conclusion. Frustrating and hilarious by turns, it is a novel that rewards commitment. It will be published in the UK on 7 May and in the USA on 29 June.
Despite leaving the bas-lag universe, I've been looking forward to Kraken for a while. Perdido St Station was a work of pure wild imagination; a tour de force of Mieville's rip-roaring mind. I loved The Scar, a more tightly plotted, tightly characterised spin-off from PSS. Even Un Lun Dun was pretty good, and The City and The City was weaker, but relatively enjoyable. Unfortunately, it feels like Mieville is losing the plot. To anyone who has had the pleasure of reading Gaiman's Neverwhere, Kraken feels quite simply derivative. Not only that, but despite an interesting introduction, the plot meanders slowly, aimlessly and without structure towards a twist which feels unjustified - and unfortunately, by the time I reached it, I was bored and didn't care.
Kraken is set in the London we know and some people love, where Billy Harrow works in the Natural History Museum. After pickling a particularly large squid, things take a decidedly weird turn, and Mieville introduces the artifice and pseudomagic of his previous books. Billy plunges into a world alongside his own world, but quite unlike the one he knows - filled with squid cults, origamists who fold more than just paper, teleporters and fire mages. Trying to unfold the mystery, Billy gets in well over his head, and then some.
At first it does feel like the characters are well done, and the plot is fairly linear and well-paced, but after around a quarter of the book, the book no longer gripped me. There's a large cast of characters, but their movements aren't particularly well explained, and the plot isn't particularly well structured. It does have a start, a finish, a few points where you feel like Mieville is trying to set waypoints, but for the rest of the book it meanders aimlessly. And unfortunately, unlike the wonderful, sprawling Perdido St Station, which is so magnificently weird that you don't mind, Kraken just doesn't pull it off. I really hope that Embassytown is better or I'm going to start losing faith.
on 11 May 2012
I was absolutely hooked for the first couple of chapters. The author's imagination is incredible and the originality was so compelling. I barely understood what was going on, but felt sure that all would become clear.
Halfway through I still had no idea what was going on, but decided to give the author the benefit of the doubt. It must be a technique he's using to help the reader empathise with the protagonist who also doesn't have a clue, I naively thought.
Now, having finished it, I only have the vaguest grasp of the plot and feel thoroughly disappointed.
The character of Billy Harrow was also lost about two-thirds of the way in, when he suddenly begins to understand, abandoning the poor confused reader. I found myself wishing that Collingswood was the main character instead as she was far more interesting.
Overall, a fantastic idea and so much potential, completely wasted by the author trying to pack in about 5 books worth of ideas into 1, and explaining nothing. I'm so disappointed.
on 27 January 2013
I expect a talking 20 legged suitcase to come flying out of a turtles arse before playing bingo with a game of monopoly, If you like a wacky full of nonsense storyline WITH NO IN-WORLD LIMITES OR CONTINUITY then this is your book. Apparently China Mieville is a great writer. I might never know.
The main bit of the story goes on and on and on and on, so buy the time they find the thing they are looking for, i couldn't care less. I just want the end of the world to destroy them all and myself along with it.. I never read the end so i dunno if it did.
on 27 April 2015
This is a very poor execution of what is a good idea. The problem is the book meanders along for nearly 500 pages when it would have been much better edited down to say 250. It is almost unbearable stuff but didn't need to be. The idea of people operating in the shadows behind apparent reality is interesting and I was persuaded to buy. I wish I hadn't. I am not persuaded by the reviewer who is convinced Mieville is a genius. I would like to see some more evidence than this poorly written book.
on 9 June 2010
You have to hand it to the author China Miéville (CM), that he does have an incredible grip on the english language, powerful imagination, is capable of wielding it both like a darting rapier or a smashing maul and having the guts to actually write his stories in his own way, whatever an editor might tell him.
His very own way... which, while it worked brilliantly in "Perdido Station" and "Iron Council", is utterly the wrong way here. "Kraken" takes place, or at least starts off in the "real" London.... not some utterly fantastic imaginary setting. And while the story quickly blurs the line into the fantastic, London is still a place we feel and somehow expect to be real, run along recognisable lines, even if these have utterly oddball explanations. If every second inhabitant is gifted with knacks or powers, there have to be either limiting rules or some overall explantion the rest of us mundane folks don't notice.
Well ..no such luck here and a first strike against cohesive world-building. Within a few chapters CM pulls one fantastic, fiendishly creative and often outlandisch concept out of the proverbial hat, proudly parades it by us (and straight down the roads of hapless London) and then promptly forgets about it, having it fade away like fog at noon. The intense density of ideas is just staggering and unfortunately starts to drown out the story (rather compact at 480 pages length anyway) of the Kraken specimen "too large to be stolen" in a static blast of creativity within a few chapters. Londonmancers, odd end-of-days cults, occultist criminals, semi-mystical gangs, weird knacks of a thousand different heritages and mystical archeological remnants all vie for the readers attention, the language growing more and more convoluted - I suspect CM is secretly in love with a monstrous theusaurus, striving to ressurect terminology not heard for decades or ouside eclectic circles, to which he adds dozens or even hundreds specimen of freshly minted terminology like hinterLondon (sic!) monsterherds, deadists, Thanaturges and postlapsarian... I kid you not - all these terms are from just two pages, picked at random out of the book !
"The last krakenbit hid their teuthic tumorous amendations in the lorry".... (sic!) .... yeahhhh right ! Please, dear reader, get used to phrases like this, because they lurk everywhere and creep up on the reader sometimes alone or in small packs, often leaving entire passages alone only to mug the unsuspcting reader when he turns a page.
Now add to that prose constant rapid change of viewpoint, numerous cast, supernatural warping of reality's basic tenets, a complicated background and setting where alliances shift from page to page, little being what it appears to be at first sight and the "end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it" coming in at least three different flavours at once, with a side order of insane insights, cultural quibs and in-joke references !
Yes, it is very impressive, but the noise drowns out and buries the story, overwhelms the reader's interest and smothers the work under layers of verbose treacle.
All of this in 480 pages ! Lost gods of London, the books feels cramped ! It's like a nigh-bursting armoury of beloved keepsakes, the doors of which the readers inadevertently opens - getting buried, suffocating under the content for his curiosity.
To be honest, many of the ideas and concepts are awe inspiring, but the book would rather obviously have profited from more space to elaborate on them - e.g. more pages (!) - or holding some ideas back for another novel. Some more complications, twists and double-blinds and rather less obvious hints at the "last chapter surprise" villains and their goals would have been advisable too, because, at its very core, the plot of "Kraken" is ..... utterly simple and linear, besides being in its essence deeply flawed in its internal reasoning. That core plot, the story arc starting with the disappearing Kraken from the Darwin Collection's grounds comes across as an incompletely conceived skeleton framework upon which all the brilliant ideas are hung, to form some larger-than-life entity. The result though, while entertaining in a dazzling sort of way, remain ultimately unconvincing, incomplete, half-baked... much like some bizarre and pitiable accident of inventiveness. Like Frankenstein's monster it seems conceived and created with the best of intentions, but ultimately a failure, a mimickry of the intended goal and spectacular near-miss. Like any classic movie monster, it works its fascinating magic only as long as we don't care to inspect the structure that supports the illusion, or questions its premises.
The truly great parts and concepts of "Kraken" dearly make me want to love the book, but sadly anger and regret over the unfullfilled promises, the rushed execution and lack of polish prevents that from happening. Guess that makes me heartbroken and disenchanted^^
3/5, most of these for inventive genius
Besides, at times I got the distinct suspicion that CM has read "Neverwhere" by Neill Gaiman, and fell in love with that grand idea of a supernatural London (as well as some concepts from Gaiman's "American Gods" which I felt strangely reminded of as well ) sketched there by one of the genres masters. Fell in love so hard and unforgivingly, that he rather shamelessly recreates the imagery, the slightly befuddled protagonist hero-to-be, the supernatural parallel universe(s) just out-of-sight in real London, plunderi... well no, borrowing and reclothing some of the memorable villains from it and turning them into Goss and Subby..... all without acknowledging the creative lease. Adds a slightly sour taste, even if it was meant as an homage,
on 11 January 2013
In the same way that the Mounties always get their man, I always finish a book. But it's been a struggle...
I'd heard a lot of good things about Miéville, the best thing to happen to Brit scifi since Banks and so on, but I really have my doubts as to whether I'll read another. It's taken me six months. Not saying he's not imaginative, or that he can't turn a phrase, or that he can't draw a character with a couple of brief sentences: he can do all these things in spades. But his editor should have said "China, me old china. The plot. It's rubbish. Try again."
This book is like reading one of Terry Pratchet's City Guards Discworld novels with every single mote of humour and every last joke expunged (apart from things that you can tell are supposed to be funny that don't quite work), but with half the plot density and spread out over double the page count. The characters are defined in a couple of pithy sentences but never get any more detailed, even the protagonist, who you know no better at the end of the book than you do by the end of the first page. And a deus ex machina ending, followed by another deus ex machina ending. I suppose, given the context, this may be satire on deus ex machina endings, but it's poor reward for the reader's efforts.
Two stars? Got to give him something for imagination.