China Miéville must be good with Lego. Give him a pile of bricks and he’d lock them together in ways you never thought of. That’s what he does with words at any rate. In his novel Kraken his skill with language ranges from the deceptively simple – “his tongue flopped over, momentarily meatlike” – to the more obviously esoteric – “infolding and weightomancy were arcana among the arcane”. Nor do you have to search hard for examples. Miéville’s uncanny knack with prose is everywhere. “Knack”, by the way, is the word he uses in Kraken to approximate magic, and I use it here deliberately. What I especially like is that all these words exist. Miéville’s vocabulary may be peppered with portmanteau, but it’s always real. So, therefore, are the worlds he conjures with it.
If the words are everything, the rest is no less. Kraken begins with intrigue – the impossible theft of a giant squid exhibit from London’s Natural History Museum. Our hero Billy – everyman turning gradually hero – is sucked into an under-London of strange landscapes and bizarre sects with unlikely abilities: Londonmancers, squid-worshippers, a man turned tattoo, Chaos Nazis and the ocean itself … they stack up with sometimes bewildering speed. It’s a tricky journey, tricky enough that Miéville’s relentless powers of invention cause the pace sometimes to lag. But the invention itself is seductive enough to hold you even in the slow parts, and delivers ample reward in the final third of the book.
I’ve always thought Miévillea little cool on character. He does none of the obviously sentimental things to make you care for the people he makes. Yet when they die you feel kicked. You love them, especially, for the way they speak. His dialogue, like his description, delights. In Kraken, it’s Police Officer Collingswood who takes this particular prize. In all that she says, Miéville’s wit sparkles.
Then there’s Goss and Subby, legendary villains as written by Dickens in one of his more Lovecraftian moods. The constant threat of them pervades Kraken by virtue of the fact every other character is terrified of them. Or maybe it’s me who was scared.
I put Kraken aside now with that delicious regret you get when a story’s bitten you deep. It was a slow read, mostly because every word demands your attention. Coming back out of it feels just as slow. I feel the need to visit London again, perhaps to seek out a trap-street or two. Maybe I’ll play with Lego instead, see what strange conjunctions I can discover. They’re there to be found, as China Miéville continues to show us.