Sunday, August 8, 2010

Kraken, by China Miéville

Full disclosure: I've been looking forward to Kraken for a long time. Miéville has, by now, blossomed into a full-on weird-fiction rock star ("New Weird" is what we're calling it these days, but Miéville himself refers to his work as "weird fiction" and that is, and I, who often grapple with genre-naming conventions, find that 110% legit). His last novel, The City & The City, really knocked my socks off. He won an Arthur C. Clarke award for that one, or, as I call it, "The Prize I'm Pretty Sure They Invented To Give Margaret Atwood So She Would Get Something For The Handmaid's Tale After It Got Shafted For The Man Booker." If I'm not mistaken, that makes an absurd three for Miéville, which is more or less unheard of for such a young writer.

Did I mention he's got awesome tats and piercings? I'm pretty sure no piece has ever been published on Miéville that doesn't mention either that or the fact that he's apparently totally ripped. It's a requirement for these sorts of things.

So: Genre fiction superstar.

Kraken is, on the head of things, a book you've read before. "Urban Fantasy" conjures up a certain subset of the genre with its own rules and conventions. Boy or girl with wrenchingly normal life discovers that the world (or the city; or, more often, London) is, in fact, teeming with magical creatures and sorcerers and oddities of all sorts. Or just vampires, primarily, but that counts, too. At first I wasn't terribly impressed; what makes Kraken is how refreshingly light it is. I'll explain: Not "easy reading" light, and since this is a book with Miéville's name on the cover, it's got a sprawling, byzantine plot with an equally sprawling cast of characters. No, after the weighty downers of Perdido Street Station and The City & The City, Kraken unravels like a black comedy. It's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels with wizards. Kraken approaches the well-trod genre with a sense of humor, even though the tension -- and the novel is, essentially, a very long chase scene -- remains fairly taut throughout.

The maturity that Miéville displayed in The City & The City is in full effect here; his prose gets leaner and less purple with each outing. Compare to Perdido Street Station and you'll see what I mean. The pacing is well-handled, which is no feat juggling between three or four plots. Characterization could bear to be a little less lean, which is disappointing after the really excellent portrayal of the lead character in The City & The City, but one supposes that the author has an awful lot on his plate with so many characters running around magical London.

Not all is quite right: A few gags fall short; while the Tattoo's eerie weirdness is off-set, successfully, by the oddball goonishness of him and his henchmen (like I said, think "British gangster flick" and you've just about got it), the magically functioning Star Trek phaser probably would have been better off showing up for a scene and going away instead of popping up again, and again, and again. The three sub-plots that form the bulk of the narrative advance unevenly and don't quite meet up in any satisfactory way.

Still, Kraken solid all the way through, and is maybe most impressive for the dramatic shift in tone from what I, at least, was used to seeing from Miéville.

Did I mention he's like a Communist rock star with awesome tattoos? They won't let me publish this if I don't.

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