Review: Kraken, by China Mieville

Kraken
China Miéville, narration by John Lee
Urban Fantasy
June 2010
Random House Audio
ISBN: 978-0-30773-594-2
16 hours, 9 minutes

Kraken opens with an impossible theft: over eight meters of preserved giant squid, Architeuthis dux, has been removed from the Darwin Centre at the natural history museum. Just how does someone steal the centerpiece of the Centre’s specimen collection, particularly when said centerpiece is so huge as to make stealing it seemingly impossible?

Billy Harrow, a curator at the museum and one of the scientists who’d worked on preserving the giant squid, discovers the theft while he’s leading a guided tour through the Centre’s collection–the apex of which is the giant squid. The police are quickly called, of course, and while Billy and his colleagues are stuck on how, the investigators are instead worried about why. Billy doesn’t understand how they can so casually dismiss the how, but the reader (in this case, listener) who is even remotely familiar with China Miéville’s penchant for urban fantasy understands: Billy’s world is about to be turned upside down.

At first I was interested, curious to see how Billy, the stolen squid, and the expected magic tied in together. By chapter thirty, I was looking at the remaining playing time and worried when it wasn’t even half through. Somehow, Miéville managed to take plot points that should be cool–Star Trek geekery! underground magic community! intrigue! super creepy and dangerous villains! cults! snarky police! clever use of language! heroic heroes!–and make them not interesting as a cohesive whole. The web of intrigue that connects the characters and the plot points is well handled; I can only imagine the story boarding needed to keep it all straight while writing. However well handled it was, though, it felt like too much. Excellent components cleverly strung together and somehow not working cohesively.

As a novel, Kraken is an okay story with a number of good elements. Scenes and chapters, taken individually, were excellent listening. I found myself grinning madly at the fun Miéville had with the Star Trek and pop culture references. One little critter, living inside of an iPod, was especially amusing to me (particularly given narrator John Lee’s singing). The sum total of the parts, however, felt bloated and like it was trying too hard to be clever and funny and complicated in narrative.

I was lucky, given that I was listening to Kraken during a long road trip, that the narration, delivered by John Lee, was brilliant. He really made the story for me at a time that, had I been reading, I would’ve set the book down and walked away. Even if I missed the dialogue tags, I always knew who was speaking because he gave each character a distinct sound and voice. I’ll definitely go looking for other audio books he’s narrated.

One thing that struck me as I listened is that I only cared about or felt connected to, one character. Marge carried, for me, the entire emotional impact of the story, the only character who felt complex and identifiable. I find this almost sad, given that she was a secondary character. Billy, for all that he was the center of the narrative, all things revolving around him, I did not connect with. He felt something less than three-dimensional. The secret world, this Other London, the scattered cast of characters, was far more interesting than Billy. Maybe this is why I came away from the story with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

Visit the author’s blog.

In disclosure of how I came by this audio book: I bought it from an online retailer.

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About Jessica

Dork extraordinaire, that's me! An unhealthy knowledge of Star Trek, a love of books, a fondness for purring cats.
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