Monthly Archives: December 2011

Kraken – China Miéville

Kraken, released in 2010 and winner of the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and Locus awards, is a vision of a seething, living London that has a far darker and mysterious side than many of its inhabitants know. Where Neil Gaimon’s Neverwhere sees people fall through the gaps into an alternate London, China Miéville’s hidden London is all around if you know what to look for. Hundreds of cults and gangs worship and practice their own doctrines, with people working at the Thames barrier preparing themselves for their apocalypse when the sea will rise and reclaim the land, whilst other cults model themselves on extreme fascist ideology or pray to animal gods.

One such god that is worshipped is the kraken, a beast from the deepest oceans, but one has been caught and preserved, floating in a tank of formaldehyde in the Natural History Museum. Billy Harrow, a curator at the museum, helped preserve the kraken and leads visitor tours where it has become the main attraction, but one day the kraken and its tank are no longer there.

So who has taken it, how, and why? These are mysteries Billy thinks will be handled by the police, but not even they are what they may first seem. Billy ends up being kidnapped and is thrown into the other London, where he is viewed as a prophet by the church of the kraken, but is also hunted by a gang boss who can mobilize all of the bounty hunters, freaks, thugs and centuries-old psychopaths of London in order to find him.

The apocalypse is coming, and everybody can feel it building. The world is going to burn, say the Londonmancers, who can manipulate the city around them and look into the future, but who is causing it? Billy, with help from Dean, a soldier from the kraken church who splits from it to save his god, must weave a path around the city, staying ahead of his pursuers, in order to unravel what happened to the sea monster. In a city where people have enough power to distort reality, or burn places so thoroughly that they literally never existed, it is a journey into the far reaches of imagination.

Miéville has described his own work as ‘weird fiction’, and has been grouped with other writers such as Mark Charan Newton, Jesse Bullington and Jeff VanderMere into a ‘New Weird’ subgenre of fantasy and sci fi fiction. This has been described by VanderMere as being urban, secondary world fiction that takes a real world model to riff off using fantasy and science fiction elements. If you take this definition, Kraken is an excellent example, as Billy finds out that the inanimate London he thinks exists is alive in a sense, where a Londonmancer can cut open a flagstone on the pavement to read London’s guts underneath, or morse code messages can be passed across London through the streetlights, and even the different boroughs of London have their own political leanings.

Some elements can be familiar – the assassins Goss and Subby that work as a pair and strike terror into all with their horrific savagery and otherworldly gifts, are very similar to Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar from Neverwhere, the paper planes that can follow a target are used in the film Spirited Away, the gangs of London sound similar to The Warriors, and a plot point from The Prestige is used, but they all are far more bloody and brutal. The central belief of the kraken as a god is so out there, it is difficult to understand how on earth this devotion came about, but this book delves into how important belief can be to some people, whilst others give up their free will to serve as mutilated slaves. An apocalypse is coming, but which one? The underworld of London turns out to witness not one but two foretold endings, from different religions, so how can you be adamant that yours is the one that’s right? You wouldn’t want to miss it though.

Kraken is a very strange book that is a claustrophobic mix of magic, greed, belief and power that takes the ordinary and cracks it open to show the slime, blood, and mystery within.


The Bard’s Tale

The Bard’s Tale is a 2004 RPG spoof released by InXile Entertainment, which it says is a modern interpretation of the original 1985 Bard’s Tale. It’s basically a tongue-in-cheek look at the tropes of fantasy RPGs, with its big-busted barely clad women, random wild animals attacking you in forests and chests of gold lying about to plunder.

Instead of being an intrepid adventurer, you’re a bard, who’s more interested in bedding the barmaid and then robbing her than saving the world. And it’s not a bad idea, but you know it’s just going to be the usual hack and slash with added sarcastic wisecracks from your character. You start off in a bar in the delightful Scottish village of Houston, which you can walk around an explore although there’s not a right lot in it. The camera angle in the game is very annoying – it’s vertically above the bard, so you just see the top of his head and a circle around him, rather than being able to look over his shoulder. This makes navigating around places more difficult than it should be, especially because the village is mainly made up of round identical huts. An inset map only gives a general outline of things, but does highlight areas of interest.

The game really is just a basic RPG with the minimum of story. The adventure unfolds with a voiceover being a storyteller describing the journey of the bard as though it’s supposed to be epic, but it really isn’t apart from the giant fire-breathing rat in the tavern’s basement. Why are we wandering about a random Scottish village? Presumably to make money if he’s a bard, but the gameplay is of a warrior going around fighting animals for the locals. There’s a forest that you can enter at one end, but again there’s very little in it apart from a ridiculous number of wolves.

Your bardic power seems to have more use through the character’s ability to conjure up creatures with a lute. However, this means you have to pause whilst being attacked to strum your instrument to get a new creature to appear, which is another annoyance, along with the long loading pages you have to sit and watch every time you walk in and out of a building or move from one part of the world to the other. If you’re exploring all of the buildings in the village, this ends up being a lot of loading pages.

The bard himself is a scruffy cockney, who during conversations can either give somebody a nice reply or a nasty one, depending upon which button you press. More entertaining is the elderly richly-voiced narrator who tells the bard’s story as you move through the game and provides a bit of wry commentary now and again. The main thrust as it were is to make fun of fantasy games with comments that mostly make you roll your eyes, though now and again can be quite clever. However it sometimes comes across a bit laboured, with long lingering shots of the barmaid’s ginormous breasts barely constrained by the tiny outfit she’s wearing, for example.

The graphics aren’t bad, the ground is well textured and water when you step into it is done quite well, but it can sometimes be difficult to see loot for example, or even where the thing attacking you is coming from because if you run near a tree, you can’t move the camera under it, so your view is blocked, and the colours are quite muddy in the forest areas. The fighting is very basic as well – you can block and you can hit and that’s it.

So, overall, for the money (17p on Amazon) it’s probably worth a go to have a bit of a chuckle at how daft it is.