Jodie from http://bookgazing.dreamwidth.org/ and I had such fun last year reading The City & The City together by China Mieville, that we went back for a second go, with his novel Kraken.
Warning: the following review contains spoilers, fangirl squee and shameless requests for fic.
As Jodie put it: “yep we are engaged in slashing the work of a much worshipped experimental sci-fi writer. We rock :)”
Let’s do this.
Maree: I thought we could start by talking in general about how Kraken subverts the norm of giant-monster books. I'm thinking of things like Relic (though, disclaimer, I haven't read Relic) wherein there's an expert - usually a gorgeous woman - who teams up with, say, a handsome
FBI agent and they run around the city shooting things and shagging.
And this ... is not that.
First, Billy is such an everyman. I mean he has the job of looking after the giant squid, but he's fairly ordinary. Until ... he's not. I found Billy's reaction to his not-ordinariness interesting. Like,
after a very short while, he's okay with it and actually starts using it ... but I'm getting off-track.
So - Billy. What do we think?
Jodie: Even bigger disclaimer, I don’t think I’ve ever read any other giant monster hunt books although I’ve seen a few films that feature that kind of story line. But I totally recognise the ‘handsome dude/ sexahy and learned lady’ team trope from oh I don’t know a billion other genres (most popular right now, the historical mystery involving some kind of creepy cult). Let me say that I am incredibly glad that ‘Kraken’ is not that. I’m not sure I’d enjoy two weeks of crawling through a 481 large page version of ‘National Treasure’, even though that film is a fun way to spend a couple of hours.
It’s not like Mieville is above tropes and well worn pathways. He gives us a well used heroic type in Billy. Like you say he’s the everyman, who then turns out to be the special snowflake of destiny. Except Billy’s specialness eventually turns out to be so, I don’t know, mundane, almost (athough what he can do is still pretty impressive) that it kind of messes with the familiar ‘everyday hero’ type of fantasy and sci-fi. He starts out thinking he’s a regular curator, is then told he’s the kraken prophet given visions by an ancient arthropod god, only to find out that in fact he’s the bottle prophet, linked to…sure an ancient angel of memory, but specifically one that’s created from jars and has been reduced to a tiny sculpture by the end of the novel.
Even, when he’s finally saving the world, he has to laugh at the ridiculous loophole that being the bottle prophet gifts to him as he stops an apocalypse with semantics, a twisting of words, a reducing the mythical kraken god to something very ordinary.
That kind of trickery reminds me a lot of Terry Pratchett’s books where heroes and heroines often win with a clever twist of logic, that is tied up with ‘head magic’ which reconfigures the world through words and convincing. I thought it was so clever.
So, Billy, yeah I started out really unimpressed with his character creation. He seemed to have no real connections, or past and initially felt like a vessel for Mieville to pour clever ideas into. By the end of the book, both he and Mieville’s world felt like they’d been on a journey of development from ideas and details to true reality and turned into something the reader could care about. How did you feel about him by the end of the book?
Maree: It is rather mundane in the end isn't it? After all the magic and the knack; there's a loophole.
Mmm ... at first, I didn't really have an opinion on Billy because he's kind of a cypher. He's reactive and kind of passive, and, like you say; has no real connections. He obviously has no family, and his only real relationship outside of work is with Leon and, by extension,
It's interesting that it's the search for the kraken that makes Billy start FORGING connections. There's Dane the Awesome of course, but also the Londonmancers and - to a much lesser extent - the police.
He starts to flesh out as a character when he starts to believe in - not in the kraken-as-prophet so much; but in ... the magical underworld?
Can we talk about the police? I'm really ambivalent on the police in this and I'm trying to work out why …
Jodie: 'It's interesting that it's the search for the kraken that makes Billy start FORGING connections.'
I love this idea, like Billy gets his very own apocalypse so that he can make friends and become more of a connected person :)
We can totally talk about the police! I like Collingswood, but like is absolutely the wrong word. I find her endlessly interesting. It's not just the knack that first sparked my interest (although the magic in this book is really original), but the way that she's such an imperfect knacker and she knows it. I'm so used to seeing the all powerful wizard character, or the comic bumbling wizard who never the less probably saves the world and Collingswood the self-assured, irreverant, swearing, medium ability knacker is so different.
However I don't think the force are exactly fabulous examples of what we all hope from the police. Let’s just say they don't appear to have been on any kind of sensitivity course.They’re pretty inactive and seem to appear less and less as the book goes on. I guess that’s because they're struggling with the case....
Maree: Yes! Kraken is as much - or more - of Billy's journey as it is about the impending apocalypse.
Collingswood was great; but I wanted a little more character development for her, I think? I loved her attitude, and her imperfect knack and her kind of ... ass-kicking competence, if that makes any sense.
Her boss turned out to be slightly useless and as for Vardy ... it's almost like Mieville would almost forget they were there and then jam them back in again - lol.
Could you imagine Collingswood on a sensitivity course???
I want to talk about Dane, but I want to talk about Dane A LOT, so before we get to his awesomeness, can we talk about the things that creeped us the fuck out?
Starting, of course, with Tattoo .... the thought of which still makes me shudder a bit.
After finishing the book I figured Vardy was pushed into the background so we'd get a huge impact when his evil plan was revealed. In that moment where Billy works it out and finds Vardy, all those moments where Vardy disappears with a gleam in his eye take on so much more significance. But it does also feel like Mieville is like, I need a shocking ending...who would no one suspect...oh how about Vardy the guy we haven't seen for ages. That's just speculation though.
But her boss, yeah I'm not sure what happened there. I guess the way her boss, Baron, crumbles allows Collingswood more agency and to take her rightful place as lead officer. I would have liked a little more character development as well, maybe some more about her life outside the story would have helped? I did like the way she doubts though - she has a worry, then kind of goes 'fuck that, no time for that' and picks up her surly, quipping persona again. It's not like she uses that personality to fake it in the police and mask who she really is. She really is that Landan geezer type of lady, but she definitely sometimes squashes things down and goes out harder than she maybe feels. Does that make sense?
Creepy things: The Tattoo is mental right? I really loved when Paul escaped and we got to learn more about him, because that made the whole 'man trapped in skin of other man' thing extra freaky. I felt for Paul when he was that nameless, handcuffed man, but I was so involved in his story once we got a little bit more detail. I've never seen an author write 'man trapped as tattoo' before, have you? And I thought it was so inventive to have other people transformed into machines (also very disturbing) in the workshop.
We've got to talk about Goss and Subby, if we're talking creepy things right? Aren't they disturbing?
Maree: Generally, I'm not a big fan of minor character suddenly revealed as evil mastermind, but it sort of makes sense here, especially with the way Vardy is described in the first few chapters, which I JUST remembered. By the end of the book, though, I'd kind of forgotten that
and on first reading went ... 'Huh', because it can be kind of a lazy plot-point.
Vardy is definitely absent more than he's present as the book progresses, which does dovetail rather nicely.
The Tattoo thing is highly original - and creepy in the badwrong way. I love that we get to know the guy as well, and that he forms a kind of strange bond with Marge - both people who got drawn into the magic underworld - for want of a better term - more or less against their
will. The radio men - that's haunting for some reason. Moreso than Tattoo, for me. Not sure why.
Goss and Subby ... now there's a force of nature. Or, well, a force of evil, really. Like there's a certain ... purity? to their evil. I mean, they have no redeeming qualities. At all. And Goss EATS PEOPLE because he can.
They're obviously some kind of spiritual/demonic force, but I love how that backstory isn't explained - they're just there, and menacing which makes it all 100% more creepy and skin-shivery.
Aside from Awesome Dane, I think my favourite character was Wati. I loved how mundane some of his interactions were - from things like pez dispensers and Kirk dolls - because he was organinsing a strike while everyone else was waiting for the apocalypse. A STRIKE.
I ... have no point other than that - lol
Jodie: Yeah I'm not quite sure how to feel about Vardy's part in the ending, because of the Mieville wrote it. Is he really skillfully leading us down the wrong path, by removing Vardy from the story so much, or does he just need that final unguessable twist and hey, turns out it's Vardy? Like you said the way he acts at the beginning seems to argue for the first interpretation, the way his life is explained (he had a cult and lost it, now he's mad that he can't unknow that his cult's apocalypse was wrong, but every time he's asked to infiltrate a cult for just a few days he almost believes again). I think there's a moment about 3/4 in where he suddenly has to go, because he's 'on to something' that made me pause. Still...maybe we are undecided on this point?
I love Wati and the strike too. It's not the kind of thing you see in novels about sci-fi, or fantasy, even like urban fantasy with its combination of real life and magical happenings is surprisingly low on explicit moments of social protest. It reminded me a little bit of the 'Undead, but not Unpeople' protest in Pratchett's 'Reaper Man'. Actually quite a lot of this book reminded me of a more sweary Pratchett - Collingswood's weird sense of humour in what seem like totally horrific circumstances, some of the sci-fi details like the strike and the chameleon guy, which are so odd and out there, but also kind of adorable, the importance of myth creation and just the general tone which goes into humour and quiet story telling...what do you think?
I think Wati is probably one of the most well developed characters in 'Kraken', because like Dane (the Dane squee fest is coming soon, right?) he has a back story, connections and passions. I guess it makes sense that Billy doesn't seem to have all those things (although obviously he's passionate about science and his work at the museum) given what we know about how his real origins (born to someone human that we never meet) are kind of subsumed by the origins the museum's angel of memory believes in (the story he makes up about being the product of a 'gone wrong' first attempt at test tube birth). He's sort of birthed from a myth he makes real himself and as a result I guess it makes sense that his story in 'Kraken' keeps from describing anything that isn't relevant to that myth. Wait, does that make sense, do you think, or have I gone off on a weird ramble?
The woman who has been turned into a phone is the absolute creepiest, missing a soul creature that The Tattoo creates for me, but yes the radio people! They're just stripped of their humanity and when I first heard about the workshop I shuddered, because ugh. One of the most disturbing elements of crime novels is when a victim is taken away to be 'worked on', tortured and pulled apart and I guess that even though in this novel lots of the people who become machines supposedly go there willingly, that kind of idea echoes in this part of the Tattoo's enterprise.
Ugh Goss and Subby, the bit where he folds the guy in on himself. And the part where he eats Leon and you're like 'what just happened, surely there must be more to Leon's story than this, he'll be back' but he never is, he's just snuffed out. I really admire stories that do that, no backsies on death thing, even if they are pretty hard to take. Which I guess leads us nicely onto Dane the big goddamn (tragic) hero that he is...
Maree: I'm not sure either. I'm inclined to tilt towards clever, because Mieville IS clever and I want to believe - lol. But the jury is definitely still out on that one.
Wati and his strike is very Pratchett, I agree. I've only read about 10 Discworld novels (I'm slowly working my way through) and that whole ... magic in the mundane? thing is vintage Pratchett (as near as I can tell). Like Collingswood who - on the surface - is a somewhat irreverent cop, but there's clearly more because of her knack which is so very imperfect but so very Collingswood at the same time. And yes - Wati is very three-dimensional, if you'll excuse the pun - lol. He has almost no corporeal form at all, yet he's possibly the most well-realised character of the book.
Billy, in a way, (I think) remains a bit of a cypher. He has knack he didn't know about; like you say he was born from a myth in a way - and in the end he IS the myth, or the kraken, or the god, in a very real way and - that reminds me; I wanted to see more of the angel of memory because if you want a tragic figure ... I mean; getting smaller and smaller until it's really just this little, pathetic collection of bones ...
Okay. LET THE DANE-SQUEE BEGIN.
Jodie: (Ooo I love that last part of your e-mail, about the tragic smaller and smaller bottle figure, but am no longer resist the urge to squee, so...)
OMG DANE! I love Dane. He is a rogue soldier for the church of kraken for krakens sake - how was I ever going to resist? He really believes in his terribly strange faith and has feeeelings about the way to treat a kraken. And he has so much great back story, complete with stories about his sweet, ex-soldier of fortune grand dad. One of my favourite bits was when Dane told the story about his granddad asking him to pick his favourite saint - so oddly sweet and...full of male feelings.
We are agreed that Dane and Billy are total slash fodder right? And that Dane is ripped?;)
Maree: DANE!! Lol I think we contained our squee pretty well. How much do we
He's so ... solid in his kraken-faith, once we realise he's actually on Billy's side and not a creepy cult stalker type.
You know he's totally built and can kill you five different ways with a toothpick ... uhm. I may be projecting, but he's definitely bamf and he believes in Billy so much and I can't NOT slash them, you know? Honestly I'm THISCLOSE to writing fic because they're so, so perfect for each other in a lot of ways.
And when Billy is like ... we're going to save him, and doesn't even hesitate ... yeah. I don't care what anyone says. That's true love.
Jodie: True, true love. (I feel like we need some appropriate slash gif here, but the best I could come up with was this:
OMG write the fic! I would read it, you would draw all these people into Mieville's weird world, they would get the book and then they would gaze around in confusion. 'Where have you brought us Maree? Why...why is that guy's back talking?!'
I expected to find Dane's faith kind of distancing as a girl with very few personal connections to religion (and one who thinks worshipping a squid god is one of the many definitions of weird), but like you say his faith is so set. And not in the typical obsessive, creepy way we tend to see in religious fanatic characters, even though he does some pretty extreme things for his cause (turning into a squid at the end and dying, was out there, but still so kind of heroic). Interesting that he's a warrior/worshipper of the old style, like a crusader but without the urge to convert...Idk how did you feel about Dane and his religion?
Maree: BOYFRIENDS. And I'm talking about both Billy and Dane and Gwaine and
Merlin - lol.
I was raised Catholic so I'm pretty comfortable with religious imagery. I love that Dane's ... I mean, he's a fanatic, in a way, he's definitely one of the faithful but he's not batshit crazy, if that makes sense. Like, his faith is one of his bedrocks and he never, ever questions it, which makes him just that much more awesome and bamf, somehow.
Because normally, the religious nutters in books are, well … nutters. But there's something pure about Dane's faith. He's what I imagine old-school crusaders (er, apart from the whole needing to convert the evil Jews thing obv) were like: he's a TRUE soldier of his lord. And his faith in Billy ... like, he's just THERE for Billy all the time and I can't describe the joy of it. And even BILLY knows how much Dane is there for him and I just. I NEED FIC OKAY.
Jodie: Yes one piece really isn’t enough. I wonder who we could pull in to write us more... Oh hi http://renay.dreamwidth.org/ renay! (YAY, RENAY - Maree)
In conclusion Dane is hot, Kraken is fantastic and it’s a good job neither of us has any regular slash averse sci-fi fanboy readers ;) Do we agree to meet back next year to hopefully continue our unabashed Mieville squeeing?
Your conclusions are correct. Slash-averse sci-fi fanboy readers don’t know what they’re missing :-)
Yessss. We have a date with Iron Council in March.
And in conclusion: