China Miéville put his name on the map in 2000 with his sophomore novel, Perdido Street Station, a sprawling, bursting-at-the-seams amalgam of just about every geek obsession the young, leftist intellectual had harbored since adolescence, including (but hardly limited to) H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and Dungeons & Dragons. The book was, in the best possible sense, a mess. His subsequent novels have zoomed in on a certain facet of that mess, from the high-seas science-fantasy of The Scar to the existentialist mystery of 2009’s The City & The City. According to that arc, Miéville’s new book, Kraken, should be another refinement of his restless vision and voice. Instead, it’s another mess—of slippery subgenres, dizzying ideas, and horrific supernatural beings. Only here, he wields that spastic chaos with a nervy, thrilling discipline. And now that he has a handle on the anarchy, Kraken is hands-down the most fun book he’s written in years.
Of course, there’s still plenty of vertigo to Miéville’s storytelling. Kraken’s whirlpool of a plot zeros in on Billy Harrow, a young scientist at London’s Natural History Museum who recently embalmed the institution’s latest acquisition, a giant squid. When the squid vanishes, Billy gets sucked into a teeming, paranormal London underworld—reminiscent in some ways of Miéville’s bestselling young-adult novel, Un Lun Dun—that’s crisscrossed by magic constables; foppish Nazis; a pair of monstrous, father-and-child assassins; animal mediums on strike; an origamist who uses math to fold solid matter; and a cult of squid-worshippers whose apocalypse is on the fast track now that their deity is missing. Due to his contact with the creature, the cult considers Billy a prophet, and before long, he’s caught in a larger battle involving clashing eschatologies, reality written in squid ink, and even the personified sea itself.
As Byzantine as Kraken is, its prose is retrained, at least by Miéville standards. He even imports some of Un Lun Dun’s prankish wordplay—yes, “squidnapping” and “squid pro quo” make it into the book—while dropping far more pop-culture references than his typically hermetic worlds usually allow. Some go a bit too far; for instance, Billy’s procurement of a functional Star Trek prop loses its charm after he runs around with it for a hundred pages. Miéville also doesn’t do much to shore up his Achilles’ heel, characterization: A secondary character, tellingly named Marginalia (Marge for short), carries almost the entire emotional load of the story, and even that load is scant. Really, though, there isn’t a lot of room for such things in Kraken, which ultimately reveals itself as a heady whodunit—one whose throwaway jokes and nerdy quirks wind up contributing to its earth-shaking metaphysical resonance. While Miéville is often cited as having massive crossover appeal between speculative fiction and literary fiction, he doesn’t concede a single thing to the mainstream here. Instead, Kraken is full-strength, grade-A geekitude. And as such, it’s brilliant.