Is this England’s wettest summer ever? It certainly feels like it and my garden is slimy with slugs.  So this week I’m recommending a watery book – `Kraken’  by  New Weird writer China Mieville. When I first saw the name of this author on a book-cover, I imagined a petite exquisitely dressed Sino-French lady. As many of you know, in reality China Mieville is a strapping male British skinhead with a penchant for piercings and black tee-shirts. I’m sure he would disapprove of me and the kind of fantasy I write (he’s a notorious Tolkien-hater) but tough luck, China, I enjoy most of your work anyway.

Dr Mieville is hugely well-read in Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction (his relatives probably see this as a misspent youth) so when he hates it is not out of ignorance. His left-wing politics influence his world-building but his books are never humourless or dogmatic. He is, first and foremost, a storyteller He does all the things courses in creative writing tell you not to do, and usually gets away with it. I admire his exuberant inventiveness, his ability to send traditional plot-lines careering off in unexpected directions, and his clear-eyed affection for the city of London in all its grime and glory. These qualities are all present in `Kraken’ (first published by Macmillan in 2010).

`Kraken’ is not a straightforward tale of man versus squid.  The story begins at the Natural History Museum (my favourite London building) when young curator, Billy Harrow, discovers that a dead giant squid is missing from its tank. After one of the security guards also disappears, Billy finds himself  haunted by mysterious noises, questioned by some very odd police officers, kidnapped by a man-eater, threatened by a talking tattoo and on the run with a squid-worshipper. That’s just the first seventy pages. Then things get really complicated. Billy is drawn into a secret world of  dissident gods, feuding cults, Criminarchs, magicians and Londonmancers (`the Switzerland of Magic’) who are supposed to keep the peace.  All of them seem to believe that Billy is linked to the missing squid who may, or may not, be a god.

Mieville’s over-stuffed  plots are almost impossible to summarize (would you believe that Star Trek merchandise plays a key role in this one?) so I’ll stop trying. Other writers might have made elements such as the police Cult Squad, the Londonmancers , or even the angels of memory who guard museums, the focus of an entire story. Mieville’s imagination is so fertile that the novel is packed with brilliant ideas jostling for space. Sometimes you do wish that he would just pick one to concentrate on. I particularly enjoyed the subplot involving Wati, an Ancient Egyptian shabti (worker figurine) who is now a Union organizer and has called all the magicians’ familiars out on strike. There is a lot of  dark humour in this book but Mieville didn’t invent the `Congregation of God Kraken’ just to poke fun at religion. He treats this cult with the seriousness the plot requires and makes you feel what it might be like to believe in such a terrible deity.

I don’t find Billy a very engaging or interesting hero but this hardly matters when he’s surrounded by a diverse cast of  fascinating characters, such as his guide and bodyguard,  the enigmatic Dane; Grisamentum, a magician who is not as dead as he might be; brave goth, Marge, determined to find or avenge her lost boyfriend and strong-minded, foul-mouthed cop, Kath. There is a lot of swearing in this book (though no more than in real-life London). A further warning to my more sensitive readers (if I have any) – a lot of Mieville’s inventiveness goes into dreaming up monsters and horrible fates for his characters. If you find a plateful of calamari a tad on the scary side, the Lovecraftian terrors of  this story are probably best avoided. However, if you have strong nerves, an open mind and a lot of time on your hands, `Kraken’ could be just the book for you. Until next week.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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