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cover of Kraken deep blue with the letters K R and K of the title forming long tentacles off their ends


Hold on to your tentacles, this post is jam-packed full of words and revelations, although not of the spiritual kind. There are massive spoilers, including the ending for the entire book. If you care about being spoiled for this book before you read it, don't read this. Onward to FEELINGS.

Oh, China Miéville, why did you do this to me on our first date? I thought we had something special. I read one hundred pages of this book and recommended it to Chris! He probably had to go put on pants to buy this book! I added your entire back list to my reading list in a year when I can only read one book by a dude after I read five books by ladies. I gushed at people about this book. I HAD SO MANY FEELINGS AND THEY STILL HAVEN'T GONE AWAY. I need healing fanfic and none exists.

I both loved and loathed this book. Kraken was recommended to me by Jodie and Maree after I spent several successful years pretending I wasn't avoiding Miéville's work out of abject fear that my brain wouldn't measure up to the telescopic gaze of his prose. I kept a tight grip on my terror that I would be found wanting and then discarded in the margins as the narrative chugged on without me, inaccessible to my puny intellect. Have you read the first chapter of Perdido Street Station? I have! It will be a vodka-fueled adventure quest before I go back into that novel again, or any of the other Bas-Lag stories, for that matter.

I had no plans to conquer Miéville's work. My journey to the multiple-armed embrace of this book was bought with cheerful insistence and chorus of BOYFRIENDS! I make no secrets about the fact that I love a source that invites you to commit a transformative work or two. Immediately after the chorus of BOYFRIENDS! I acquired this book and went into it with a certain understanding of writing fic about it after the end of the book (there was bribery involved, no joke). Here's a fact about me: I rarely, if ever, write in-canon fanfiction. I also can't write open-canon fanfiction much; I believe Teen Wolf is the first and only open canon I have ever written for and I twitch a bit imagining the release of season two and how I will have to start all over with the first time fic and it's both good and bad and nerve-wracking! I have to write the after, not the in-between, because I don't feel like I'm able to slide into the narrative with any finesse. It's a quirk, I'm a special snowflake, etc.

I write post-canon fic as a rule. Back to BOYFRIENDS! I can admit I am painfully shallow and fannishly inclined to select sources where I can write fic with feelings and makeouts. As a side-benefit I often get a great novel experience to go along with it. My experience of this novel is therefore mixed. I loved it because BOYFRIENDS! Unfortunately, this is also why I disliked it, why I will likely never re-read it as I was planning to halfway through and why my recommendation of it comes with caveats like "hey, you know how you have a heart? This book is going to consume it in its maw of hopelessness! Cheers!" I'll come back to that, because I wanted to spin out the reasons I loved it first.

Word tango. This book starts out rather mundane. I didn't find it boring, but nothing pops and nothing engaging happens. Truth be told, for the first chapter I was bored. Everything's peachy and straightforward. We meet Billy, who is drab and seems like a bit of a stick in the mud and a bit of a nonentity. Through these first sections there's no verve or adventure, just Billy being resigned at the tour he's leading, at the museum workers who refuse to high five him (come on Dane, give the man a high five once in awhile), at his life. Later, I found this super effective in painting a serene picture, at the calm before the storm. Because sure, maybe you've read the blurb and you think you know what's coming plot-wise once the squid vanishes and chapter two sets in, but it can never prepare you language wise unless you have an inkling of the fastball of words Miéville is going to chunk at your head.

After the squid goes missing the mundaneness of the prose goes away quick as you please and you're tossed into a word full of slang, complicated language that doesn't make sense, some of the verbal jabs and words and phrases so completely ridiculous that it's up to a few rereads of particular paragraphs just so you can make sure it's safe to move on. Maybe you know what they meant, maybe you don't, but you gave it the old college try — this is really reflective of how Billy likely feels, thrust so suddenly into this world of doublespeak and hidden meaning. I didn't feel much sympathy for Billy until his kidnapping by the Krakenists where he starts drinking mind-altering substances to try and make sense of everything. What else is he going to do? I'd drink whatever was available, too. This is where Miéville captured me, in that language place, the ball pit of words and absolutely perfect pitch of a writer bending the dictionary over to spank it just to see what it might shout out when it's coming all over the furniture. This book was so good for me and I only understood what was being said three-fourths of the time. The narrative itself was as dense and shadowy as I imagine alleyways and side-streets and the the secret places of London to be (says the American who has never been out of the US). The dialogue was so incisive it makes me suspect that Miéville is one of those rare writers who just grok how people speak, have listened and learned and has found a way to render it into text the soul of that speech minus all the bumps and bruises we inflict on words when we're littering them wherever we go.

I have no doubts that this kind of writing isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea and there are many who will violently disagree with my assessment. For some it will look too clever. The dialogue will be nothing more than overdone banter and some characters might even be accused of being too twee for their own good (oh, Goss, words I never thought I would use to describe him). Personally, the writing was what kept me turning the pages when sheer bemusement would have had me putting it down faced with an author in less control of what he was letting his words get up to. Even at his most verbose I never felt like the narrative was out of control. It was like high quality catnip for the discerning cat lady and I forked over my payment in the form of huge swathes of my time that I spent casually admiring the way he built sentences, constructed conversations and made the unreal events as vivid as a bloodstain and just as horrifying. The way Miéville painted a London full of magic and cults and dueling apocalyptic events that lived just under the surface, how he recycled the everyday into the extraordinary and did it with such startling ease to make me believe it was incredible.

You're awesome, lady! I would fuck every lady in this book, except for the fact they're all too rad for me to have a chance with them. All out of my league. The two that fast became my favorites were Kath Collingswood and Marge and that's odd for me because it's no secret that if a female character's main designation is "girlfriend of dude" I am immediately suspicious. But Miéville found my buttons and pushed them hard for powerful, brave, self-assured female characters with flaws that only make them better characters even when those same things are showing how they might not be great people all the time. I don't need perfection in my ladies, writers! I just need a nod to the reality that ladies can be awesome but also just as full of asshole moves as the most questionably well-developed male counterpart.

Collingswood was brash and rude and won my heart with her spiritual sniffer-pig and her acidic but fond relationship with her co-workers. I can't claim to love all my coworkers and some of them I would like to tie to a pole with a list of every wrong they've ever committed against me in the workplace during the heat of an Arkansas summer. Even when you just completely clash with a person and loathe their personality, when you work together you develop a pretty useful back and forth. Collingswood and her relationship both with Baron and Vardy smacked heavily of that kind of resigned but not depressed feeling of, "well, I've got to deal with you, may as well get my jollies where I can" feeling and "oh hey maybe this time you'll be useful." I've had this feeling many times and I felt it all the way through the novel up until the end where Collingswood decides enough is enough and emerges from her second lieutenant status into full on get the buggery fuck out of my way, I've got a apocalypse to prevent because all you fuckers are useless. I've never been secretive of how much I love ladies that are cocky in their abilities, that delicious blend of confidence and arrogance that turns my crank and really makes the character stick with me long after I've forgotten everything else about something I've read and yeah, Kath Collingswood, will you be my literary girlfriend Y/N?

Meanwhile Marge, when told to stay away, does the exact opposite and is both smart and irrevocably unsafe in the ways she chooses to go about tracking down what happened to Leon and Billy. It was a fascinating parallel of the differences entering this underground culture of London between Marge's journey, sleuthed out and found versus Billy's arrival, thrown in head first to an ocean of knowledge he couldn't begin to easily parse. Marge is quick-thinking and brilliant, both determined and up unto a certain point, terrified out of her mind until exposure renders even that ineffective. The world of London she enters into isn't painted as something easy to simply walk out of once you're in, and how many warnings is enough before it's just flat-out foolhardy to keep going? At one point, she becomes a victim of her own need for the truth when she meets with Paul, but this was the beautiful part I could have wept over in the brilliance of how placing her as a victim was subverted by the story itself. She doesn't get saved in the traditional sense. Instead, the story makes it a dual rescue, Paul saving Marge as a byproduct of his own last grasp for freedom. She's his ticket out and in many ways, she becomes the one who saves him by giving him the ability to finally, finally, break through the surface of the world he's in and breathe, because, after all, who else in his world is he going to turn to when everyone knows who he is? Because Paul, really, doesn't exist until he uses Marge to escape. I thought about this for awhile, whether I liked the fact that it was Paul and not Marge doing the saving, but it means more characterization-wise for Paul, and without Marge he would have never have been given the opportunity and without her ignorance it might never have worked. Thumbs way up to Miéville for creative and equality drizzled damseling.

How about that remix culture. I rarely stop to think about remix culture beyond dudes from original sources making out and various fanart and vids that catch my eye, but this book is filled with remix culture. Miéville takes everyday objects and says, "hey, did you ever think you would be scared to get a package in the mail? SURPRISE!" or "the best defense is a good iPod mix! Trust me!" I attempted to explain this to someone while I was in the midst of reading it that every time I thought Miéville couldn't surprise me with the way he remixed London's culture, boring objects we use every day, and the way characters interacted with the world around them, he would do something else that was completely wild and unexpected and had me gaping along with him like it was my first science fiction parade (but more on that in a bit re: science fiction).

The biggest remix here was obviously cults and religions, and I will be the first to say I have no knowledge of how many cults in this novel have a basis in reality and how many do not. I still enjoyed the hell out of the way they were established, how even in their newness to me as a reader they still felt ancient if Miéville meant for them to be so. I was definitely cautious going in of how I was going to react about the religion/cult divide, but I find it supremely fascinating that Miéville was able to write a novel in which he opened up a perfect avenue for people to discuss the differences between religions and cults and the ways they overlap, share traits and exist in the nebulous and fickle consciousness of the human beings that created them. It's one of the most interesting theoretical discussions to come out of this novel. It's in a dead heat with the Star Trek debate that's raised in this book. Which, seriously, if you've read this novel I would be happy to have that discussion with you like even if I'm only a reboot fangirl. Seriously, poor Simon. This novel is chock full of other topics worthy of intense debate and a slap fight or two when opposite sides inevitably disagree. However, the intersection of religion and cult and how faith is an aspect of both as well as how faith is interspersed throughout this world Miéville creates, even if it's not part of any sort of worship is alluring. You have to have a lot of faith when you're trusting the freaking ocean to have your back during a brawl. Although I suppose it makes the after-brawl drinks even sweeter.

Oops, there's some mystery in my science fiction fantasy hybrid story. I have some feelings about the categorization of this book and they circle around the fact that above all the tricky, communicating through mailboxes and Morse code through lamps, through familiars that strike and the spirit that can inhabit any statue or three-dimensional figure that leads them, the cults, the dude who ran from cancer by becoming the least scary but most scary object on the freaking planet, and tattoos that are sentient, that this is actually a mystery. I didn't realize it going in. Not that this matters, but mysteries always tend to be a little more work for me as I try to figure things out before everyone else so I don't have to feel embarrassed at the end for not figuring it out when everyone else is crowing about how they figured it out (I refuse to reveal whether I figured out the bad guy in this book).

Character death is not a toy, or, why Dane could have been my favorite character but wasn't, or, yes, megaspoilers. And now we come to the fist shaking portion of this avalanche of words. Full disclosure of my rampant atheist tendencies and habit of being super offensive at the worst time about other people's faiths: presented.

Dane wasn't my favorite character, although I really liked him, and Billy was a bit of a nonentity until circumstances and Dane's absence forced him to face various truths about himself. I liked them as a unit much better. I could accept that Dane believed very much in the squidy god of his heart, but actually found him straightforward, no nonsense, and unwilling to take unnecessary or dead-end risks to find the kraken and defeat the oncoming apocalypse. So yes, I was surprised that I enjoyed Dane given his faith and that I could only just barely understand him and his motivations. It was those traits I loved! No unnecessary risks. Obviously as the novel winds down whether these traits still exist is a toss up given the decisions he's making. After the gunfarmers raid the Krakenists and Dane uncovers what they're going to do to resolve the conflict, I was already despairing of what was going to happen.

How many people died and came back in this novel? So many. It got to the point where I was all, "Well, they're dead, but does that really MEAN anything?" Because it hadn't up until that point — death could be reversed, healed, or slipped out of like a wet, sticky coat on a technicality, unless you were facing down Goss and Subby, and if you were, oh well, you're fucked. I haven't found any discussion around the various deaths here, their narrative significance, or their overall worth to the story. Billy's maybe, meant something, but Dane's meant absolutely nothing to me. He filled himself with his god, opened himself to the power of the kraken on the off chance it would do any good, with the undertone that he already suspected it wouldn't be enough. He refused Billy's pleas and did it anyway. His character arc for me was inherently a weakening of his personality and his person, literally subsumed by the cult, overtaken by his faith — he was no longer his own person, he was a ineffective tool for a squid god, a wasted prophet. What's worse for me is that he rejected the requests of his friend who was actually there, who saved his life, who didn't want him to do what he did. That's so unforgivable to me. I don't find that interesting or worthwhile.

The narrative asks once, "How many martyrs emerge from martyrdom's other side?" like something has been subverted, when in actuality it's a bait and switch all along. The book says, in the end, that martyrdom is forever, no matter what other rules of reality and spirituality are being broken elsewhere. In the end, faith means that you can ultimately be erased. It was the most wasteful, meaningless death, and what's worse is that even Billy, who Dane trained and fostered and gave the power to make the decision of his own death later on, recognizes this after the fact and comments on it vaguely, he who can barely remember that time before his birth. What, exactly, was the point? Or was their some kind of "wise mentor must die horribly to force protagonist to grow" quota that day? It infuriates me. This is always going to be a problem when a narrative concerns religion and faith because I find martyrdom personally selfish and only incidentally powerful. I can't understand what changed for Dane to make this no-way-back, can't-be-undone decision make sense. You can't keep fighting if you're dead, which means it feels like at this point, the Krakenists simply gave up and decided to go down in a blaze of glory pumped full of delicious, form-altering ink. I find a cult or a religion like that beyond any logical understanding. I can't grok it. I have no theological tools to unpack why his death is so frustrating to me. I suspect it's a disconnect between the act of having faith and simply not believing there's something greater than myself to have faith in. I dislike watching faith divide people, watching people choose faith over the friends and family who care that are right in front of them begging them not to do a thing in their fervor. It makes me so mad. Dane believed in his kraken god; I just thought it was one over-sized squid which was never worth dying for.

There are no BOYFRIENDS! I lost my shit on Twitter after I finished this book and realized Miéville hadn't pulled a fast one and unlike almost all the other characters, Dane wasn't coming back. In fact, of the main characters, all the villains die or are defeated and Dane, one of the good guys who wasn't a victim of Goss and Subby, stays dead after the most stupid and useless death I have read in a book in a long time. Trust me, I read the Harry Potter book where someone dies by falling through a flapping curtain. It was the most ridiculous sacrifice ever, for nothing, because Dane was too stubborn (I GUESS?) and because Billy took too long to figure out his place in the entire affair. a;lsj;alskd;laks;kalsd basically.

cartoon woman reclining with a book. text above reads I refuse to apologize for my defensiveness of relationships between fictional characters.


Back to an earlier point about how I can't write in-canon fic. Really, really can't do it. As I told all the people I capslocked at post anxiety-attack after finishing this novel, even if you ship characters and write fluff fic set while the book is still in progress, IT STILL ENDS IN 100% DEATH. Oh, sure, you could post-canon fix it, but man, I couldn't do that with Harry Potter, with Final Fantasy X, and I'm suspecting I can't do it here, either. Sometimes, something is so solid and deliberate it feels like undoing it undoes something integral to the source itself despite how dumb I think it is. I also suspect I could never write anything even one-fourth as well as Miéville, so excellent! I am saved from additional humiliation.

All in all, this book is fantastically good, has excellent world-building and writing that is both rich and effervescent like a delicious mixed drink, of which I had one or two after finishing. I'm quite sure no one else will react to the end of the the book like I did, unless you also develop deep feelings about the friendship that developed between Billy and Dane and are easily seduced into the depressing spiral of BOYFRIENDS! Obviously I will be reading more of Miéville's books because I am a sucker, but I am now armed with the knowledge that he can be super evil and break your heart in his fist with his choices about who lives and who dies and why.

Still not touching Perdido Street Station, though.

Other reviews:
things mean a lot, Jodie & Maree, The Book Smugglers, Ashley Crump (SF Signal), Theresa Delucci (Tor.com), yours?

Date: 2012-01-11 10:35 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
See, this is why I love your reviews so much <3 It was so interesting to be able to get a glimpse of this book through your eyes.

My reaction to Kraken was a little weird: I mean, I loved it, but although I'm usually a VERY character-oriented reader I just wasn't that invested in the characters. It was mostly about the language and the ideas for me, which I guess is why I completely missed the Billy/Dane subtext and wasn't heartbroken about the death. Though I agree with you 100% about Collingswood and Marge.

Date: 2012-01-11 10:47 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I would totally read that sequel :D

And yeah, judging from what I know of his back list (only three novels, but still) I think I agree.

If you write that fic, can I read it? Insert puppy eyes here :P

Date: 2012-01-12 12:47 am (UTC)
copracat: Roger Federer, shirtless.  (roger)
From: [personal profile] copracat
If you ever feel tempted to read Perdido Street Station, come to me and I will talk you down. I wish someone had done that for me.

Date: 2012-01-12 10:48 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I really like all your thoughts about faith, cults and Dane's death. I feel like cult life is examined thoughtfully through Dane and he's kind of the anti-Vardy, the positive cultist maybe, but I'm not sure how to read his death. No matter how much I empathise with Dane and see him as a real person, not just crazy cultist/let's bash religion by looking at cults stand in number 100 (which is what you so often get in stories that include religion), he is, when everything shakes down, a fanatic. A likeable fanatic, to be sure, someone I'd like to hang out with down the pub, but still a man with fervour in his eyes. And I wonder if despite the thoughtfulness and the examination of 'Kraken', his death and the way the cultists/apocalypse producers wreck the city, ties into a simple 'religion can fuck you up if it's not careful/if people go too far' base?

Meiville avoids the usual clash of religions metaphor, which makes up your typical 'look how religion causes problems between people' story and that's great, because those kind of stories, eh, they're often simplistic and they can't help but signal certain religions at engaged in harmful conflict. Instead maybe he's going for a 'look at how the concept of faith can be powerful, but also destructive when fanaticism enters the picture, even if people are committed to doing no harm with religion' and because of that Dane has to die, as he's the most faith filled person in the book?

So maybe Dane is flawed by his fanaticism as you say and becomes 'an ineffective tool for a squid god'. Maybe that's the point. But then I kind of turn back to my thoughts that if the point of your narrative is to make a point with death, then is that really a strong narrative? If your idea can't survive/be expressed without the death of a character, then what does that mean? Many thoughts on this.

Date: 2012-01-12 01:16 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Hmm... on the one hand a part of me reacts strongly to the idea of dying for a cause, or having a character die to prove a point, and not in a very positive way. But on the other hand, it's often the case that it's one specific plot elements that allows the narrative's themes to be fully expressed, that enables it to do what it does. Things like, I don't know, two characters meeting, or a journey, or... something. I could list a few examples, but hopefully you know what I mean. So with that in mind, it feels a little arbitrary to say that using death to fulfil this role in a narrative* weakens or flaws it, but using any other specific element/event doesn't. Something like, say, Six Feet Under constantly uses death to heighten or express its themes - is it inherently flawed? I DO have feelings about the idea of martyrdom, but I'm trying to look at this aside from them. Does any of this make sense?


*Although I feel very differently about it if it's the lady dying, or the glbtq character, or the character of colour, because of the long history attached to these characters being sacrificed.

Date: 2012-01-12 03:14 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I got distracted for a moment thinking about death in narratives in more general terms, but the way you reacted to Dane's decision in terms of him abandoning someone who so clearly cares about him for the sake of... what, exactly? makes complete sense to me. I think the question of what the story is trying to say about martyrdom with this is very interesting and worth asking, but I would have to read it again with an eye to that, since it's been so many months. Gah, stupid memory.

Date: 2012-01-12 03:17 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I mean, NOT that I would immediately know if I read it again when the two of you are undecided even though you read it recently. It's just that then I'd maybe be able to contribute to this discussion better and joining you in trying to make sense of it :P

Date: 2012-01-12 01:20 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Thinking about it some more I realise that maybe I'm also a little bit wary of the idea of death as a thematic catalyser because there's SO much potential for it do be done wrong and drag the whole text into melodramatic or emotionally manipulative terrain. But as with everything else I think it *can* be handled right.

Date: 2012-01-12 03:39 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Oh now THAT'S interesting. Vardy as most faith filled - I guess I discounted him because I see his faith as ending up so negative, while Dane's does look like the conventionally positive incarnation of faith (even if its still a little off balanced). What can I say, even with an non-believer parent, I absorbed a whole lotta Christianity through the "secular" school system that was around when I was little and I probably do still filter martyr characters whose death doesn't hurt other people through the Christ story. Sure his death looks fated, but like it doesn't do anything from an outside, literal perspective, but the idea is that his death saved humanity. I'm not a believer, but all that stuff is undeniably in my head.

I don't know if I feel like I'm meant to approve of what Dane does, or if we're meant to feel like he was nothing important(but then I feel like Dane is a fuller character than Billy by a long way, even though he's very mysterious and closed off from the reader's penetration in the present). When I finished I felt like I cared, but also wtf Dane, why? Like I had a kind of tired, sad reaction to what he'd done and the fact that he'd left new Billy to cope with all the feelings left from old Billy's relationship with Dane, but I had a reaction, like I still cared.

How do you feel about Billy being dead and made into new Billy, in connection with Dane's death? What do you think that does to the emotional impact of the book?

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