China Miéville's novels are often described as pushing against the boundaries of genre, as if the world of the unreal were a prison from which a saner novelist might seek to escape. Yet with this latest book, the author presents us with a world which is at once more and less familiar; London at a glorious slant.
The first 60 pages ride a familiar trail, as Billy Harrow, a rational-minded curator at the Natural History Museum, is thrust into a murky underworld of warring cults and magic-minded criminal gangs by the impossible theft of his museum's centrepiece, a preserved giant squid. Almost as soon as Billy's life begins to dissolve under the pressure, he is approached by members of a shadowy wing of the Metropolitan Police whose remit covers only the most unconventional crimes.
So far, so Torchwood.
Yet it is not much further along that Miéville performs a sly about-face. All the pieces are in place and we can almost hear the comfortable plot mechanics crank with familiar strain until, with the inviting image of an open hand reaching from a wrapped parcel, we are suddenly pulled into a much wilder sort of book; allegiances dissolve, lives end on the point of sharp implements, and the whole of the city is opened out into the backdrop for internecine feuds as old as stone.
Some of this territory is familiar. In his debut, King Rat, Miéville showed us a London similarly undercut with animal magic. Meanwhile, the numerous cults and gangs resemble the ambitious world-building of his novels set in the fantastic city of New Crobuzon. Miéville's landscape is a London not hidden beneath the streets, but wedged in alongside ours – where high-rise flats hide magic-for-hire and Limehouse garages are workshops for converting the unwilling into something rather horrible indeed. This is a magical realm formed – often literally – from the detritus of the modern metropolis.
The author knows the value of the uncanny, and often his slights revolve around only the faintest of twists on the familiar; commuters in motorcycle helmets are transformed into portents of menace, while magical familiars are formed from masonry and scraps of discarded medical matter. As with the best fantastic fiction, after reading, the world around us is transformed. '
However, some commentators in the genre community were up in arms over his previous novel The City & the City winning the Arthur C Clarke Award, as it wasn't "hard science enough" (as though a plot that centred on the outer limits of string theory wouldn't pass without the requisite armies of cyborgs, aliens and intergalactic trappings).
Miéville has talked fondly of genre as being merely a set of rules with which to play, and his writing inhabits its own unique space. Here, he is at pains to place his London in a familiar context, naming places and dropping references like footnotes in a pedant's text. There's reverence, too, and not a little dash of tribalism, in the way he peppers the text with references to genre tropes; in two winning moments, a magical mercenary is bought off with Star Trek merchandise and the electric pentacle first used by William Hope Hodgson's ghost hunter Carnacki proves crucial to police investigations.
Simultaneously reverent and brimming with punky attitude, Kraken proves Miéville is ever forging new ground, even when walking the same grey pavements as his readers.