Mieville has tapped the mystery of the giants of the deep before – his excellent seafaring fantasy novel The Scar featured the avanc, probably the very largest leviathan lurking in any of the fantastic seas – but the Kraken of this novel is metaphoric as much as it is real, vastly more important as a symbol than it is as a scientific specimen. Of course, that’s true in large part because this is a fantasy novel, and so metaphors are more real than science. (Though, then again, there’s a turn near the very end of this long, engrossing novel that sees science – or the idea of science – triumphing over anti-scientism in an important way.)
Kraken also sees Mieville return to London, the city at the center of his conception of the world. His first novel, King Rat, was set in a thinner, less realized version of the thick stew of London myth and marvel brewed up in Kraken. Mieville then turned to the secondary world of Bas-Lag, with the invented city of New Crobuzon standing in for London, allowing Mieville to personalize all of the evils and indignities of his home city into a crueler and more magnificent place for three novels of widening scope. But he was drawn back to London for the Young Adult novel Un Lun Dun, the strictures of that audience only somewhat limiting his scope for depicting abuse of power, terror and cruelty. Un Lun Dun had a more conventional conception of magic – tied to a secondary realm, beneath or parallel with the “real” world – but that pseudo-secondary world, and that younger audience, allowed Mieville to indulge his more playful side as never before. Mieville’s next novel again saw him running away from London again, but its gravity was stronger than before: The City & The City was set in the modern world, no more than a thousand miles away, in a city with two populations that try to avoid thinking about each other, a city with serious crime problems it tries to ignore, a city obsessed with not looking at itself. And now, after only that one novel away, he’s back in London – but it’s a deeper, more nuanced London than King Rat, a London where the fantastic elements aren’t ghettoized like Un Lun Dun. The London of Kraken is Mieville’s own London – only more so. It’s a city of labor disputes, of cranks and radicals who may not be as unreasonable as they seem, of sudden violence and unexpected depths, of unlikely connections and eschatological fervor – the real city, brighter and stronger and more vivid in fictional form.
But Kraken doesn’t begin as a fantasy novel; Mieville wants to seduce his audience into this particular Byzantine secret London, and so it begins with science, and the everyday world of Billy Harrow, a curator at the Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum. In Kraken’s London, unlike our own, the Darwin Centre is the home of a preserved giant squid – Architeuthis dux – and Billy is leading a tour of the Darwin Centre as the novel opens. The squid will be the climax of the tour…but it’s gone. Somehow, impossibly, an eighteen-foot long dead sea monster has disappeared from the middle of a major museum, without any trace.
The police investigate, of course, and question Billy. He knows nothing, and tells them so. But then the other police come – the FSRC, Fundamentalism and Sect-Related Crime Unit – and Billy starts his fall into the hidden London, where a crime boss can be a living tattoo, or supposedly dead, where a major sect worships the giant squid, where all kind of armageddon alarms are suddenly ringing louder and louder, as if everyone’s end of the world is coming at once. Billy learns that the theft of the kraken was possibly meant to short-circuit a particular prediction of impending doom – but, instead, it’s made that particular apocalypse (there are as many ends of the world as there are groups of odd monomaniacs in London – yes, that many) ever more inevitable.
As Billy is forced out of his previous life and ventures ever further into the unfamiliar side of London, Mieville slowly ratchets up the fantasy content of Kraken – possibly too slowly for the fantasy readers who can see where this will lead, since there’s an awful lot of borderline-tedious scenes of Billy being incredulous, confused, and stupefied in the first third of this novel – until the end, which relies on not just the abilities of several very singular Londoners, but the embassy of a very unlikely realm and the Darwin Centre’s own magical guardian before it’s all over. And Billy's story, though remaining central, is wound through with the stories of two women -- WPC Kath Collingswood of the FSRC, a young policewoman with more than enough attitude and almost enough of a particular talent; and Marge, the girlfriend of a friend of Billy's who disappeared mysteriously, and who willingly explores the world Billy is being dragged through to find out the truth for herself.
Along the way, Mieville finds plenty of scope to indulge his taste for the grotesque and bizarre; the magical talents and secret groups of Kraken are deeply Weird, in all the accepted senses of the word. Kraken's main problem is that it takes too long to get going: there's an awful lot of unnecessary walking back from the mainstream novel in the early chapters, which gets tedious and tends to make the reader think of Billy as a useless lump who will have to be dragged through the plot by main force. (Luckily, he does get better in the second half of the book, but the beginning of Kraken will only thrill those who have never read any work of fantasy before in their lives.) It's also about less than Mieville's earlier novels have been -- for all of my problems with The City & The City, that was a book wrestling symbolically with big questions of representation and dualities -- though there is that ambiguous relationship with science to ponder. But, mostly, Kraken is a novel about how cities are large and mysterious places filled with unexpected wonders and dangers -- pretty much in the same way that King Rat was, twelve years ago. But Kraken does have gunfarmers and the union leader of London's familiars, katachronophlogiston and the ghosts of a teleporter, among many other wonders -- so it's worth fighting through those early chapters to get to the fantastic meat of the matter.