I love China Mieville. He has the enviable talent of being able to simultaneously make reference to and utilize old fantasy tropes, cliches, and standbys in a way that makes them fresh and new, while simultaneously creating new ideas that at least seem like they've never been thought of before. this makes his writing some of the most original fantasy stories coming out today.
His latest, "Kraken," is set in a London much like our own, but which reveals itself to be quite different from its mundane surface. Our protagonist is Billy Harrow, a curator at the British Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre, whose only real claims to fame is his (unverified) claim of being the first person ever conceived via artificial insemination, as well as his assisting in preserving the Centre's claim to fame, an almost complete Architeuthis, otherwise known as a giant squid.
Because Billy is both curious and so associated with the squid, he ends up somewhat inadvertently stumbling upon a side of London hidden from the general public, a London full of strange cults, magical gangsters (including one that is a living tattoo), a hard-left socialist trade union for magical familiars, and many other bizarre things. And to make matters worse, Billy soon discovers that every seer or prophet in the city is predicting that the world is going to come to an end, and the stolen squid (the kraken of the title) is at the center of it all.
The plot of this book is impressively fast paced, especially as it soon becomes quite complicated. In fact, one of the few downsides to the story is that it can get so labyrinthine that it is occasionally confusing. On the other hand, its complexity allows it to be a rollicking romp that goes places that are totally unexpected.
Billy is a nice character. He is confused and bewildered at the beginning, but believably evolves into a much stronger and more competent character at the end. However, his spotlight is often stolen by the more fascinating secondary characters, including a bodyless ancient Egyptian spirit who is boss of a union for London's magical familiars, an enforcer/assassin for a cult devoted to the worship of krakens, a smart mouthed young witch who works for a very specialized branch of the police, a magician who's also a massive "Star Trek" fan, and a villainous killer whose constant nonsequiteurs and mute child companion make him one of the creepiest antagonists in recent fiction. Mieville is really good at creating a real variety of characters, which makes his London in this novel feel like a real place.
As I mentioned, the plot is rather twisty and turny. this can throw off readers who aren't expecting it. For more serious Mieville fans, who've read his other books and therefore are prepared for a twisty narrative, this is less of a problem, although the opposite one can arise: Mieville can be a little predictable in his unpredictability. For instance, I was able to guess that an initially friendly character was going to turn out to be an antagonist, and I was proven right (although admittedly I had my eyes set on a different character, and I wasn't expecting it to happen twice). These are less problems with Mieville's writing and more comments that I feel I must make in the name of fairness.
All in all, this was an excellent book, with interesting characters and a narrative that kept me hooked. I strongly recomend it, especially if you're a Mieville fan.
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