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Originally published Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 7:07 PM

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Book review

'Kraken': China Miéville's fantasy of London in a squid-obsessed apocalyptic frenzy

A review of "Kraken," by fantasy fiction author China Miéville, a darkly rich London-based story that features an attempt to rewrite reality itself, as its hero enters a London "filled with gangs of criminal monsters and secret churches worshipping ferrets and squids."

Special to The Seattle Times


by China Miéville

Del Rey Books, 509 pp., $26

Something about a giant squid cries out to be the center of obsession. Perhaps it's the animal's enormous size, or the mysterious depths it dwells in, or the number of its tentacles: 10, the same as the number of our fingers ... "Kraken," the latest darkly rich novel by multiple-award-winning fantasy-fiction author China Miéville, recounts the disappearance from a museum of a preserved giant squid and the resulting apocalyptic frenzy; it also toys, gently, with cults, obsessives and the nature of obsession.

After an odd, catechismic passage about underwater saints, Miéville introduces us to Billy Harrow, curator at the London Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre circa October 2007. Harrow, guiding a tour that's supposed to end with the giant squid specimen (scientific name Architeuthis dux) he personally prepared for display, is aghast to find the specimen gone from its room — impossibly vanished, tank and all.

Harrow's Architeuthis is more than 28 feet long; the tank containing it is filled with thousands of gallons of preserving fluid. Not the sort of thing a thief could slip under a duffel coat and slink away with. The police force's Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit, called in to investigate the squid's disappearance, drives Harrow "below the everyday," into a London filled with gangs of criminal monsters and secret churches worshipping ferrets and squids.

The FSRCU includes a young officer adept at conjuring, and an expert on arcane religions; they attempt to recruit Harrow, but first he's kidnapped by a pair of evildoers who make Hannibal Lecter look like Mary's Little Lamb. Then he joins forces with Dane Parnell, the former museum guard and apostate squid-worshipper who rescues him.

Miéville intersperses Harrow and Parnell's adventures with scenes from the FSRCU conjuror's pursuit. A minor character's girlfriend provides a third viewpoint, changing as the story unfolds from a baffled victim to a seat-of-the-pants seeker after motives. All these players' goals overlap, but Miéville refuses to simplify the story and make them identical.

Complexity is Miéville's hallmark. Modern London's diversity isn't just faithfully represented, it's expanded on, as the daughter of a human professor and a fire elemental is referred to as "mixed race." Earlier, in the midst of their hunt for Architeuthis, Harrow and Parnell refuse to cross a picket line of magicians' familiars. Elements like these combine with Trekkie "tribbles" and "phasers" — winks and nods at genre obsessions — and a resolution in which fantasy validates scientific knowledge. It's a reading experience that's both phantasmagoric and grittily grounded.

Facing down competing apocalypses, Harrow saves reality from being rewritten into the banal narrative "Kraken's" villain prefers: a simplistic history of the world no Miéville fan would accept.

Filled with unforgettable images — a minotaur made of detritus swept together by leaf-blowers, a sneeringly sentient tattoo — "Kraken" proves once again that Miéville's reputation as the author of books readers obsess over is well and truly deserved.

Seattle author Nisi Shawl is the winner of the 2009 James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award for her short-story collection "Filter House," published by Seattle-based Aqueduct Press.

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