I have a confession to make. I’ve been following China Miéville’s career for over a year but until now I haven’t read any of his books. I’ve read loads of interviews, watched panels and listened to podcasts. But I’ve been avoiding reading his books. Perdido Street Station has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for all this time and I haven’t had the courage to read it. Because I think Mr. Miéville is kind of awesome. He gives great interview and even greater panel. (I mean, seriously, he kills it on a panel. You guys should totally watch the World Writer’s Conference videos from the Edinburgh Festival. But only if you’re super geeky about literature because otherwise it’s pretty boring and navel-gazy with occasional flashes of pure and utter awesome. So, you know, whatever. You should do what you want and not even listen to me.) It’s kind of fun, too, because despite being 40-ish, he still kind of looks like the punky kid, even when he respects the occasion by wearing a suit. He has five baby octopus tentacles piercing his left ear and a bald head. You can really only go so suit-y when you’re working in that accessorial arena. So there’s everyone dressed in standard serious writer wear (creative but in the artisanal way that means, “you can take me seriously because this silk blouse was sustainably sourced and these earrings were handcrafted by refugees using colorful thread and locally sourced shiny, spit-polished rocks”), and then Miéville comes out and does the intellectual version of a Mr T, pitying the fool while kicking ass in a surprisingly soft-spoken, gentlemanly and humorous way. It’s really squared fun to watch. The problem is, it doesn’t matter how smart, charming and funny you are. If I’m going to hang with you geekstyles, I’ve ultimately got to love your books. If I don’t love the work, it’s hard for me to enjoy a writer in any other context. Damon Lindelof may be awesome in interviews and on panels and stuff, he may totally be someone I’d love to sit next to a dinner party, but I’m not really going to watch or read those interviews because I’m not into his work. (Sorry, Damon. I’m sure you’re crying all the way to the bank.) So I’ve been avoiding reading Perdido Street Station because it might not be as awesome as Goodreads says it is. Because I might decide I want to punch China Miéville in the face after reading it, as apparently the Penny Arcade guys wanted to do. If that happens, then you know I’m going to have to break up with China. And that would be really sad for me, if not for him. (Mei-Who? I imagine him saying before shrugging his shoulders and going back to work.) Also, it would be kind of embarrassing because I’ve posted a lot about Miéville on my Facebook page and have even quoted him in one of my recent reviews here.
So since Perdido Street Station has had such a big build up, I thought it might be a good idea to read a less famous book. Kraken jumped out at me because the concept tickled me. The giant squid on display at London’s Natural History Museum goes missing, plunging curator Billy Harrow into a world of competing apocalypsi and more off-beat magic than you can shake a stick at. There’s a villain that’s a talking tattoo on some poor man’s back, a union leader who just happens to be a spirit who can only inhabit figurines or statues and a magician who can fold people up like origami. And here’s the thing: aside from the aforementioned octopi tentacle piercings, Mr. Miéville has a giant skulltopus tattooed on his arm. And, with his shaved head, he kind of looks like an octopus. That’s a lot of octessorizing for any group of people, let alone one person, and it makes me think that cephalopods are something that make his brain pan sizzle and sear. You know, if you’re gonna read one book about a tentacled sea creature, you should maybe go with the one written by a guy so obsessed with the things that he’s going to wear one on his skin every day until he dies. Or at least that was my logic in picking Kraken.
I enjoyed reading this book every bit as much as I hoped I would. Miéville’s got a great imagination and I thoroughly enjoyed his inventiveness with language, with character and with the fantastic version of London he’s created here. I wasn’t sure how much I liked the book, though, until about the last one hundred pages or so. Miéville sets a lot of plates spinning in the air and I honestly wasn’t sure he was going to pull off the ending without breaking some crockery. But man, he TOTALLY did it. There’s a point where the plot strands come together and it’s so delightful and fun and weirdly literal that I just started laughing and I pretty much smiled all the way until the end of the book. Did I love this book? No. Am I going to press it eagerly into the hands of every single one of my friends? No. Am I going to read more China Miéville? Fuck yeah! I’m not ready to take vows or get his name tattooed on my ass or anything but I honestly can’t wait to read more because this guy has the full package. He’s smart, he’s got a sense of humor, he can write and he can tell a story. It’s rare that a writer combines all those qualities. There’s a reason why Miéville keeps on getting compared to Neil Gaiman and it’s not just the whole fantasy version of London slash apocalyptic comedy thing. He’s ambitious, he puts it all out there like he’s not afraid of failure and that is pretty frickin’ awesome. If you like Giant Squids (wait, are there people who don’t?), inventive fantastic fiction, puns, nerdy references, genuinely scary villains and writers who aren’t afraid of slinging around big ideas, then you’ll like this book. And if you don’t, well then you probably didn’t even read this review.
PS China Miéville is famous for using fifty-cent words (hey he’s got all those degrees from all those world-famous universities, he gotta get his money’s worth, amirite?) and, yes, I did end up reading this book with my iPad keyed up to a Dictionary site. It was worth it. Of the words I learned, my favorites were benthic (meaning: relating to the bottom of a sea or lake or to the organisms that live there) and haptic (meaning: of or relating to the sense of touch). Haptic is such a beautiful word. I’m glad I know it now.