XMission's Company Journal

Unleash the Kraken!

Tolkien has long been the foundation on which nearly all subsequent fantasy works have been built. Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and many other fantasy staples were codified by Tolkien in his various stories about Middle-Earth.  How often do you see an Elf described in a fantasy novel that doesn’t bear some resemblance to the Tolkien archetype? And for that matter, how many fantasy realms do you see without Elves? There are some, but they are fewer in number than those that stick to the Tolkien formula.

Tolkien clearly influenced the design of Dungeons and Dragons in the late 70s and 80s which in turn went on to influence a great many fantasy novels set in the D&D multiverse from the 80s through the present.  Some of these were good reads, others not so much, but they all served as a pool of fiction that inspired the minds of the fantasy-inclined and reinforced the Tolkien ideal.  While every new fantasy series that came along created a new setting, world rules and menagerie, they were consciously or subconsciously carving out their own territory in a landscape created by Tolkien.

Enter China Mieville.  Earning a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge and a Masters and PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics, Mieville has set out to sweep aside the conventions that Tolkien has established.  His disdain for what he calls Tolkien’s “article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader” is apparent in his statement that, “Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature.”

Mieville’s style is that of contemporary literary fiction fused with the fantastical.  His work plays well to intelligent adults, and never once feels like it is dipping into the valley of young-adult writing where things are fast, glossy and shallow.  He and a few other writers have been said to be pioneering the ‘New Weird’ style of fiction, a sort of anti-authoritarian response to the Tolkien-esque dictatorship over the fantasy genre, but while that description might conjure the image of teenage rebellion, Mieville simply walks past tradition and sets up shop a long way down the street.  You won’t find a new coat of paint on an old set of conventions here.

His new book Kraken takes place in contemporary London, complete with references to everything from Google, to the singer MIA, to Star Trek and more.  Mieville’s London is our London, but with some additions that become apparent to those Londoners who know which message boards to read.  Religious cults dedicated to old and forgotten Gods (which actually exist)?  Check.  Demonic Duos?  Check.  Entities spawned from collective memory?  Check.  Sentient Tattoos?  Check.  Familiars?  Check (but don’t try to hire one, they’re on strike, and the union leader doesn’t take scabbing lightly).  Magic?  Sort of.  See, in Mieville’s world you won’t find sorcerers blasting away at each other with pyrotechnic displays of force or secreting themselves away in a tower in the pursuit of ever more wisdom, instead those endowed with the gift simply have a ‘knack’ for doing certain things.  Need something big made smaller?  Find someone with the knack for folding.  They can take your object and fold it down like origami.

Kraken is unique in the way that the setting is just as interesting as the story.  It never feels like Mieville has a staff of interns holding up cardboard facades on wooden sticks as the main characters trundle past on their way to complete their journey.  And while there are a few minor holes here and there Kraken is always coherent and believable.

If you enjoy fantasy, or contemporary literary fiction, Kraken is well worth your time.


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One thought on “Unleash the Kraken!

  • Alan says:

    This is an excellent review. I just stumbled on it. I am always looking for this kind of novel, fantasy that aspires to high literary value. Thanks for the recommendation. However, one thought is that it’s tough be original. The “knack for folding” sounds alot like knacks that Orson Card uses in his Seventh Son series.