I don't have many bad words to say about China Mieville. The man is something of a genius in fantasy circles, one of the heralds of a style known as the New Weird. And it's all well-deserved. I started reading his works with his second book, Perdido Street Station. It was a wild, grotesque tale of a city full of arcane systems and intrigue. Each creature was described in vivid detail, and while the plot could be distilled down to its base elements and explained as "unoriginal", the sheer warped complexity it came across with made it memorable and easily-recognizable. The one problem I ever had with the book was that so many plot threads went into play at once that whenever I put it down, I never managed to pick it back up without having to read all the way from the beginning. I actually had to pay attention to it. It was like Pynchon or Ayn Rand, but, you know, interesting and not read by pretentious college students everywhere*.
So when I heard his new book, Kraken, was going to be the same Mieville craziness I love but set in modern-day London, I went ahead and preordered the book. I don't do this very often, but I did so because I didn't want to have to look all over for it, and don't even get me started on my complex love-hate relationship with my Kindle. I love it, but there are a lot of things I'd rather just have hard copies of to read. And my verdict on Kraken? Not good. I hate to do this to an author who has so many good ideas and such a frenetic style of storytelling (as opposed to stodgy), and I must give him props for having an urban fantasy novel with absolutely none of the usual tropes: It barely flirts with police procedural, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a single romance within its pages, save for the one broken up by a frighteningly effective hitman. Tropes are averted, reality is played with, and overall, there are a load of cool ideas in it. But, and here's the important bit, the book does not work.
Kraken follows the exploits of several Londoners, most notably Billy Harrow, an employee of the Darwin Institute. While giving a tour one day, the theft of a recently-preserved giant squid is uncovered. And the thief hasn't just stolen the squid, he's vanished it. Completely. Due to a prophecy uncovered by the Londonmancers, the people who quite literally cut the city open and read its entrails, the missing "Kraken" is the key to ending the world somehow. But no one's sure how. Or why. Or anything like that. As Harrow and the members of the "Fundamentalist Crimes Unit" continue their ultimately converging investigations (like no one ever saw that one coming...), numerous villains and heroes on each side pop out of the woodwork, because evidently "He who controls the egg and sausage macguffin controls the end of the universe".
It's a good start. The obligatory Weird Police Division pops up shortly after the title beast is stolen, Billy doesn't have much time to reflect on events before Goss, a terrifying man who speaks his own language of not-English, pops up, eats his best friend Leon, and abducts him for a crime lord with a rather disturbing physical disability. At the same time, shadowy people begin to communicate using human beings that have been repurposed as telephones. The descriptions are fantastic, the detail overload is cranked as high as it's ever been, and you don't get much more grotesque than this. But no matter how much of a good start, Mieville has forgotten with his book that there needs to be central elements to tie it all together. Despite what popular sci-fi and fantasy television has taught us over the past decade, making up a list of everything you think is cool and then trying to string it together with a plot does not work. You need a plot to put together all the things you think are cool. Otherwise, you come out with something that feels in retrospect like an Illuminatus! Trilogy fanfic. Like this book. As the plot threads go on and on, there are some interesting twists, like a presumed-dead magician living on via ink and being tortured by bleach, or origami specialists who can fold anything into any shape they want, but they're feeble flourishes at best, and at worst, distractions from the lack of plot. That's not a good thing to be. The last thing a reader should do is be distracted from your own book.
The internal logic issues put me in mind of a machine where none of the parts actually work. Where you look at a generator and find that none of the parts actually have anything to do with the machine and all the power is coming from a dwarf riding a bicycle in a decidedly lackluster manner. While the plot has an internal logic, it violates it time and again simply on a whim. In a world where one major player went so far as to fake his own death, why the hell could no one figure out that the mute kid should be repeatedly shot in the face? If the Kraken is so damn pivotal to the whole mess, why steal it in the first place, just to set off the events that cause the world to almost end? And why the hell does everyone seem to switch sides multiple times, once again for no reason? Every time a new plot point is revealed, it makes less sense and has to work harder to convince the reader it's got any place here at all.
What's odd is that the book would work a lot better as a campaign setting for a roleplaying game. Or even as a straight roleplaying game. The elements are in place for a magic game in the vein of something like Unknown Armies **, but instead of marketing it to a game company and getting some geek money out of it, he wrote a book. That's fine, but for a non tie-in novel by a proven author with a damn fine track record (less Iron Council and King Rat), it's bad. As a campaign setting or a roleplaying game it would have worked, but it isn't one. I doubt Mieville would even want to do one.
At the end of the day, I will say that this is a good book to pick up from the library if one is
curious enough to give it a chance. It's not a bad book by any stretch of the worst books I've read. It's actually amusing, and kept me engaged enough to get through all five hundred pages of it. But as I have repeatedly said, the book fails at its own internal logic, let alone any external logic that might be applied to it by people with no suspension of disbelief. If this were China Mieville's first novel, any of this could be excused. If this were the first time I'd ever read one of his books, I suppose I would have held this aloft to the rafters and shouted in joy "This is the way things should be written!" But it isn't, and I've read others. China Mieville can do so, so much better. That's the problem. The book would be good as a first novel, but this isn't the author's first time out. If you feel like reading Mieville, I'd recommend starting out with Perdido Street Station and giving Kraken a dead miss.
Next Week: Zanesville by Kurt Saknussemm, unless someone can tell me something better.
* In hindsight, given how many pretentious college students are socialists who quote China Mieville, it appears I was wrong.
**A note: I linked to TV Tropes because it explains Unknown Armies the best. And you do not know how weird it is to type those words.