British author Miéville has quickly carved an ascendant career by transcending all genre bounds, mixing science-fiction with fantasy with suspense with literary fiction. And with his last novel, The City and the City, nabbing numerous awards, he may be the most critically acclaimed and prolific novelist today (he’s now on a book-a-year pace). In his new book, lepidopterist Billy Harrow leads a tour group to see the famed giant squid he helped preserve in the museum where he works, only to find that the beast (and enormous tank) has disappeared without a trace. From there, Miéville is off, chasing Billy through the streets of a numinous London, where metaphysical criminals (one, known as The Tattoo, is actually a giant talking tattoo inked onto an enslaved man’s back) and religious crusaders (who believe the squid is a god, and Billy a prophet) think he knows more than he does. And, naturally, the apocalypse is coming.
Miéville is a master world-builder, which can cause as many headaches as it does delights. The byzantine mythology that runs throughout the book – spirits inhabit rodents and aid in various occult tasks, but right now they’re on strike – impresses and lends the story not just an otherworldly air, but a worldly one. Yet it can often feel indulgent, slowing down an otherwise breakneck pace.
It’d be tempting to read Kraken as a straight parable, providing something of a cautionary tale about the power of the church. But at the same time, if a spirit really inhabits those cockroaches over there, belief isn’t something to be debated. Instead, Miéville has done what all great science-fiction has done (and great so-called literary fiction, when it gets around to it) – provide a nuanced, highly imagined critique of the zeitgeist, dressed up in a crackerjack story.