"Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else's liver." ~ The Last Unicorn.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


If you have to steal, get this book. Murder may be acceptable. China Mieville grabbed the ink of the giant squid and shot it into his printer and wrote this magnificent book.

Billy Harrow is just a employee at the Darwin Center in London; a mollusc specialist, with a talent for preserving specimens in jars. And then one day, an entire giant squid, tank and formaldehyde solution included, vanishes from the depths of the Center.

From there, it's a whirlwind of paranormal cults and the very spirits of London city fighting over when (and how) the world is going to end. Billy rises above the Everyman status he starts off with, stumbling through an epic journey to discover what his place in history will be.

Magical beings hiding in plain sight in a major metropolitan city is not a new idea. But Mieville makes it new, by creating a wholly unique culture, with intricate laws and nasty politics. No Sidhe or vampires here; they're replaced by Londonmancers and Chaos Nazis and the Ocean as a sentient, ancient power. Trust is a nice idea here, and while some of the betrayals are predictable simply because they're inevitable, there's a lot of surprises in store.

One being Collingswood. An investigator in Scotland Yard's paranormal/cult squad, Collingswood is tough, smart, and a wonderful example of a London chav--complete with the slang and accent. She's also a female character who exists entirely independent of male interest, except as a full equal amongst her colleagues. Don't look for romance in Kraken--this is not a world where love has a chance. While at first I thought she was a token spec-fic woman, there as a prize for the hero once he lives through the Big Battle, Collingswood cuts her way through the plot on her own considerable merits.

I lied, I confess. There's a smidge of romance. Marge, offhandedly introduced as a girlfriend of one of Billy's mates, outlives her significant other and goes on to find her own path through the midden. I appreciate her loyalty to her late boyfriend; it's not the obsession of "one true love," but the rage at a world where someone she cared for can vanish with no apparent consequences. Her quest is not a vendetta, and her stakes rise with each discovery and victory.

Are there issues? Sure. The plot goes a bit wonky at times--too many threads, not enough stitches. And the ending... in as spoiler-free a way as possible, it's one of those twists based off an insignificant little clue that no one but the author could have possibly worked out. Bit like Mad-Eye Moody in the fourth Harry Potter. Very much "OMG that's what was going on!" for the second before you begin to maybe feel a bit cheated. I will say no more.

However. Mieville can really fucking write. He's a master of the craft of writing. Some sentences are so beautiful I stopped to read them several times, trying to imprint their cadence into my own meagre talents. Others made me laugh out loud with their brash tune. My only quibble with his writing is his slight overliking of the word "pugnacious." It's not a quiet word that sits in the back and can be looked over. It sounds awkward to the mind, and when it shows up more than once or twice in a novel, it stands out. Mieville takes no prisoners with his vocabulary; English-major me had to go to the dictionary a few times. God, but I love smart writers, even when they're a little too free with their cleverness.

To sum up: It's fun, feminist, and has the giant squid. Run, do not walk. And aspiring writers, take notes.

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