My interaction with the genre now known as “Urban Fantasy” really began with Good Omens, but it was the Anita Blake series that was the fodder and prompt for my first serious engagements with it. Of course, no discussion of the genre can be completely separated out from associations created by Buffy. Potentially arguments could be made for the inclusion in this genre umbrella of The Adams Family. It is, I think, probably the murkiest of the major modern genres. And there can be no real question that it’s now one of the big players, particularly in roleplaying games descended from World of Darkness. What we have is a melange of story structures and world concepts, quite difficult to use to frame apparent “genre” works. While there are points of correspondence between works within the field, it requires a better mind than mine to create a genre syntax of the kind we have for Rom Coms or Detections. So what?
One way of thinking about story formulae and genre conventions, is as a labour-saving device. The author is using a storytelling method you’re familiar with, so to an extent, can cut down on the amount and intensity of exposition. That frees cognitive powers from simply understanding the basic functionality of a work, allowing you to enjoy the details. A simple analogy: when first reading Chaucer, the bulk of your effort is simply in interpreting what each word is in modern English. Formulae are like the language of narrative. Urban Fantasies, I think, often need to import a story formula from another genre in order to form a strong narrative. There are only a handful of true originals, like American Gods, that transcend formula while retaining the best features of this difficult genre.
A book like Kraken requires that you spend some time near the begining of the story trying to figure out what’s going on. Simply understanding what kind of events are unfolding and how the various moving parts are related is non-trivial. Probably most dissatisfaction in completed works of art derives from misinterpreting the objectives and methods of the work in question. Second most is disliking those objectives and methods.
So the headline for my response to Kraken is that I’m not too sure how to read it correctly. My problem is that as it unfolded, I kept finding myself leaning into a satiric reading mode, but I could not quite settle on what it was a satire of. Only some things appeared satiric, some of the time, and these things co-exist inside the narrative with things that seem more properly wondrous. The main plotline revolves around how the theft of a giant squid from a museum will bring about the apocalypse; this is the entry point toward the “urban fantasy” aspect of it, as a whole sub-culture exists based around different deities and their respective apocalypses. Everyone agrees that the theft of the squid is, more-or-less, the real apocalypse. Everyone is in a panic to find the squid and save the world.
These vaguely silly religions give the story an overtly comic feel. It’s not entirely easy to take seriously the doctrines of any of the religions that make cameo appearances. The silliness extends to most of the characters, such as the unkempt “policewoman” Collingwood, whose colourful vernacular and ad hoc approach to magic is firmly pushed out of seriousness by her companion: an invisible pig spirit. No character escapes being marked with the comedic touch.
The aesthetic, plot, and structure, kept forcibly bringing to mind Good Omens and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Good Omens works in large part because it is a deep satire of something in need of satiric attack: Christianity. Pratchett and Gaiman draw on the deep and complex mythology of Catholicism to populate their comic tale of Apocalypse, and they point out that they’re aware of what they’re doing by ending with the discovery of Volume 2 of the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Dirk Gently similarly takes very pointed and timely swipes both at the detective genre, and the modern approach to technology. Both of these stories are underpinned by a basic plot that can be read in a non-satiric mode.
With Kraken, the comedy has the feel of satire, but because I can’t quite see what the un-satiric version of this novel looks like, it feels weirdly dislocated. Once I realized that the satire was probably just comedy (i.e. funny in and of itself, rather than funny as a mirror of something else) I started to be bothered by the lack of anything to laugh at. I liked individual bits’n’pieces throughout the text, but found them clever, rather than funny. If I wasn’t supposed to find them funny, then I’m not quite sure how I was supposed to react at all. Perhaps I was just supposed to think it was clever in the generalized manner of our post-ironic post-modern world.
The plot and the characters suffer from this uncertainty in tone. One of the major “B” plots is about a woman searching for her lost lover, killed by the main hardmen of the tale, Goss and Subby. Goss and Subby project the image of a comedy duo, with banter strongly reminiscent of Carcer Dun from Pratchett’s Night Watch. They are the comedy-geezer cockney villain. Yet, we never see Marge and Leon together, and while we see what she does as a response to her grief, Mieville’s description of her and her actions is carefully distant and purged of affect. It’s definitely not a comedic arc, but the pseudo-satiric vaguely comic presence of Goss and Subby combined with the lack of affect, meant that I couldn’t quite buy into the tragedy of it either. I think that if you wrote a summary of how the plotline plays out, the reader would reconstruct a harrowing tale of loss, grief and bewilderment at the sudden submersion into a dangerous and alien world… but on the page, it just lacks any of the urgent feel implied by the plot.
Looking back at the work as a whole, I would characterize it as almost a collage made from other, better, novels in the same vein. If you’re wanting to try some Mieville, I suggest instead Un-Lun-Dun. Un-Lun-Dun is another urban fantasy, nominally a children’s book. It is a satire of common tropes of the children’s portal fantasy, such as the Halfmen of O, but it also works much better in its non-satiric mode. Perhaps because of its younger apparent reading age, it more successfully merges the wondrous and the silly; actually, it has absolutely loads of brilliant images and concepts that are truly imaginative and amazing. So, go read that, which is a really great novel, and don’t bother with this unless you’re a hardcore fan.