Dueling Apocalypses

Kraken: An Anatomy by China Mieville (2010): A wild romp from a writer who seems to have an IQ of about 200, Kraken is the best contemporary fantasy novel published in years. Allusive and metatextual, it also manages a thrilling plot, interesting characters, and some of the weirdest conspiracy theories ever floated. And the Church of Kraken Almighty, the decadent Chaos Nazis, the Londonmancers, the Gunfarmers, the London Embassy of the Sea, and two terrifyingly unpleasant guns-for-hire, the seemingly unkillable Goss and Subby.

Billy Harrow, a biologist working at the Darwin Centre at the British Museum in London, England, takes a regularly scheduled tour group into the centre’s largest public-display preservation room to see the Centre’s crown jewel — a 40-foot-long giant squid preserved in a giant bottle (this is really there in our world, by the way, if you’re in England and want to see a giant squid).

But the squid isn’t there, bottle or otherwise. And then a dead body shows up impossibly jammed inside a smaller bottle. And then all Hell breaks loose. Or Heaven. Or Judgment Day. All of it revolving around that lost squid. For squids are baby gods. To the Church of Kraken Almighty, anyway. And with faiths and religions and beliefs overlapping and struggling for supremacy, the God in a Bottle becomes the McGuffin everyone is chasing.

Soon Billy is caught up in a struggle to either cause the End of the World or prevent it, depending on what side one is on. For London is the city of both gods and cults, with magic bubbling away just beneath the surface, a fragile ceasefire now broken as various groups — including a special police division meant to deal with magical doings — start to stake their claims on Doomsday. And everyone agrees that Billy Harrow has some major part to play.

Oh, and the familiars are on strike for better pay and working conditions, led by their ancient Egyptian union leader Wati, the spirit of an emancipated ancient Egyptian tomb-statue created to serve the mummified dead in the afterlife. And Wati’s one of the more normal characters.

Mieville balances comedy with horror and drama here, one of the more difficult feats a writer can pull off. The result vaguely resembles a Douglas Adams novel, only much smarter and with actual emotional depth among the weirdness.

The allusions and references and intertexts come quickly and in great profusion throughout, adding to one’s appreciation of Mieville’s giant and eccentric brain (a late Phil Collins reference really kills). The precognitive mystics all agree — if things go the wrong way, the universe will not only cease to exist: it will cease to have ever existed. Highly recommended.

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