December 29, 2010


by China Mieville
380 pages, Pan Books

Review by Marc Nash

I've tried, I've really tried, believe me. I've tried to like urban fantasy. I've just read this, a second, of one of its most lauded and prize-festooned authors in a couple of months and I'm just left scratching my head. Not because I couldn't understand it, merely because I just couldn't appreciate it.

Not that there isn't much to admire about "Kraken". There is an impressive level of erudition worn casually and not without gentle subversion. The book's main theme is a consideration of theologies, cults and the psychology of their followers. There is some fantastic linguistic play and dialogic mimicry. London is itself beautifully rendered by someone, who clearly relishes living in my city that is comfortably able to wear both august and subcultural diadems. There is a wonderful imagination at work here, creating an impressive bestiary of contemporary teratologies, one upon another.

Yet each one of these strengths is twinned to a fundamental weakness of the book, possibly the genre as a whole, I'm not sure. A dual London is supposed to exist in the book, the mundane world I presumably reside in and the unseen, hidden dimensionality of those imbued with magic powers. The two almost never meet, which is fine, but then the mundane, ordinary London actually fades away and ceases to exist in any meaningful way in the novel. Yet its backdrop I think is intended to remain present because it is the very stakes being played for by the supernatural gangsters and cults. An apocalypse is dawning, but I ask myself why does it centre on London? Presumably other cities throughout the world are in thrall to similar theological and magical conflicts? Although the book's finale goes some way to resolve this, the balance just feels wrong.

Then there is the nature of the magic itself. Fantastical (and phantastical) powers are arrayed throughout the myriad of creations, yet two of the supposedly most powerful kingpins are rendered harmless rather easily and another by a humble firearm. The magic seems inconsistent in scale and force and unrooted by any logic (hey, that's the nature of magic, you might protest). It reminded me of the inviolable Terminator 2, whenever it was off-screen I always asked myself what it was spending its time doing: varnishing its nails? or eating at MacDonalds? There has to be a through logic created even in the most illogical of worlds, or I, the reader, get distracted by the gaping holes.

The book also wasn't helped by, despite my being a neophyte, I guessed the real perpetrator about 150 pages from the end. When the reader is ahead of the author's carefully graduated pace, then I think the book is likely lost. It didn't take any great detective work from the clues yielded by the author, merely a character given a certain prominence (among many it has to be said), but who was so badly written within his significance that I knew he just had to be up to no good when he disappeared for great unexplained tranches.

There was one moment when I thought the whole book was about to mount a whole new level. The two main gangsters were both shown to have a key relationship to ink, even actually being part embodied in it. Was there a clever metaphor being made here about the fictional nature of these London archetypes? Maybe even a wider point about fiction itself. But the metaphor wasn't really developed and then one remembers that the book was possibly composed on a keyboard and monitor anyway.

For all the book's quality of ideas and imagination, it is ultimately an action epic. A relentless moving from chase to pitched battle, usually resolved by a deus ex magica pulled out of a top hat. The book would make a great animated movie, and yet that would degrade its welter of serious ideas that do permeate it. I think it falls unsatisfactorily between both stalls. I admit I respond better to ideas than action plots, but it seems to me that the richness of the thought contained within its pages are sold well short by the ridiculousness of the staging and plot. I suspect that for hardcore urban fantasy fans, they are going to be irritated by the reference to eschatologies and the pastiches of dialogue, from Dickensian villains to British TV Cop show banter, which personally I loved.

This writer is so talented, yet from the two books of his I have read, I wish he'd just try one book on the level, rather than filter his febrile imaginings through other world dimensions. It would make for an interesting experiment.

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