Review: The Kraken Sea by E. Catherine Tobler

A secret lake, containing a beast known only to myth. A species made of smoke and shadow, capable of following you wherever you go. An orphan on the run from fate itself. Whatever its faults, The Kraken Sea can hardly be said to be short on ideas. It’s a rapid-fire story with the guts to be weird, almost every chapter introducing a strange new concept. Sadly, concepts alone do not a good story make, and Tobler’s prose and sense of pacing leave more than a bit to be desired.

The story centres on Jackson, a mysterious orphan taken in by a Catholic order in late-1800s New York. The novella opens with him on a train to his new adoptive home in San Francisco, but a stopover at a sinister carnival unleashes a disturbing secret. Jackson is not truly human, but is in fact a tentacular monster struggling to maintain a human form, watched over by a Sister who may be a literal embodiment of Fate. Once he arrives in San Francisco he finds himself embroiled in a turf war between two rival gangs, with mysterious creatures lurking beneath the streets.

The novella’s key strength is that it manages to make Jackson sympathetic without being heroic as such. He’s broadly relatable, asking mostly the same questions as the reader at any given moment, but occasional glimpses of his childhood reveal a much less human side to him. We’re told throughout that he bullied his fellow orphans, and at one point it’s revealed that he ate a largely unthreatening child, “broke him and swallowed him because he could”. Moments like this are genuinely chilling, and create an interesting tension over what, exactly, Jackson will become at the end of the story.

But the rest of the characters are nowhere near as interesting. The supporting cast features a generic femme fatale, a generic sinister nun, a generic female gang boss who doubles as a femme fatale, a largely mute henchman and a few more femme fatales to make up the numbers. There’s a late subplot about Jackson trying and failing to fall in love with an ordinary human, but it’s under-developed and goes nowhere. The overall structure is a bit of a mess; the novella feels like a string of barely-connected episodes, oscillating between tedious over-explanation and cratering leaps in time and logic. The last third of the novella jumps from a normal encounter between Jackson and his girlfriend to all-out apocalyptic war, with absolutely no explanation for how we got there. It’s a jarring transition, and Tobler provides almost nothing in the way of buildup.

On top of that, the basic prose style is mediocre at best. Tone wavers all over the place, right down to individual sentences, such as this late moment where the Kraken emerges: “There was a curiosity, perhaps a respect, which sent a chill down Jackson’s spine. The kraken knew what the man was about and weren’t intelligent monsters the worst?” The text is also riddled with typos, and cringeworthy similes abound, my personal favourite being “It was clumsy the kiss, like learning to tie his shoes, like riding a bike down a steep hill, like throwing himself into boiling ice water.” Weird fiction can often get away with clunky wording in the name of creating an uncanny style, but this goes beyond alienating into actively sloppy. While the ideas here are frequently interesting, the execution is extremely sub-par. Tobler’s novella is daring and ambitious, but feels at least four or five drafts away from the finished product.

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