Billy Harrow has a gift for putting specimens in jars, his job at the British Museum of Natural History, where the star attraction of the behind-the-scenes tour is a preserved Giant Squid. One day he brings in a tour group only to find it impossibly gone, tank and all. As weird as that seems, things only get weirder as Billy is drawn into a London underworld of cults and magicians he never knew existed. To some of them, the squid was a god - and its theft may herald the end of the world...
I'm new to China Miéville, so I thought I'd start with the one that appealed to me the most. Being a lover of all things Pelagic and Cephalopodan (I must have read an abridged version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea about 100 times as a kid; happy birthday for earlier this week, Jules Verne!), after the first chapter I really thought this was a book written specifically for me.
As it went on I was less sure of that. Kraken has some great ideas, and I wanted to know more about all of them; the problem is that there are so many ideas none of them really get a great amount of page time. Billy, our protagonist, is one of those types all too often found in modern fantasy: an outsider to the world of the strange, who takes seemingly forever to succumb to his new world and admit there's more in heaven and sea than dreamt of in his lack of philosophy. He had me at "I work in a museum", though, so I forgive him a bit, though it is frustrating that to the reader it's clear that he's got something special from very early on, and it felt like I was waiting for him to catch up so we could get on with it. This feeling is made worse when in the second half we go through it again with Marge (short for Marginalia), a friend of Billy's. She's an interesting character, because like Billy she finds herself drawn into the world of occult London, but unlike him she doesn't find she actually belongs.
The rest of the cast suffer from being too numerous to get much limelight as well. There are so many good characters, but only a few get a real look-in. Dane, the security guard who turns out to be working for the Krakenites, is oddly sympathetic when you consider that he is essentially a fundamentalist soldier in a religious army, but as the driving force for our protagonists he's very effective. His friend Wati, who represents the familiars as a union leader, is a bit of a surprise; when getting his origin story I assumed it was far too hardcore to be a character we'd spend much time with. Then there are the occult cops; they're well drawn while still managing to exploit a few clichés (something they also do literally in the book), but we only really get to know Kath, the young talented magician with an attitude who's hard-as-nails. It seemed worryingly likely she'd end up as a love interest for Billy, but thankfully that particular cliché was one too many for Miéville.
Is it any good, though, I hear you ask? Well...yes. Story wise it has possibly too many strands, but they're all fun strands and worth having around for the laughs. Oh yes: it's funny too.
Many people said I should have read The City and the City as my first Miéville, since they think it his best work; to them I say nonsense. Why start with a book that means every other I read by the author is less good? I enjoyed Kraken, and I'll come back for more Miéville.