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.