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King Rat Hardcover – October, 1999
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Saul Garamond returns from a journey in late evening and sneaks into his bedroom to avoid a confrontation with his estranged father. He awakes to the intrusion of police and the news that his father has been murdered and he is the number-one suspect. Forgotten in a jail cell, he is freed by a peculiar, stinking, and impossibly strong stranger--only to find rescue may be worse than imprisonment. The plot moves through subterranean and rooftop London quick as a techno beat, as Saul discovers his curious heritage and finds himself marked for death in an age-old secret war among frightful inhuman powers.
China Miéville's urban fantasy novel, King Rat, is an impressive, even daring, debut. It is a Lost Prince story that avoids both black-and-white morality and the standard fantasy-novel adoration of royalty. Furthermore, it is inspired by the unlikeliest of sources, the Rat King legend and the Pied Piper of Hamelin fairy tale. Finally, King Rat, powered and propelled by the rhythms of jungle/drum-'n'-bass music, is a fantasy novel set in the 1990s that genuinely captures the 1990s. --Cynthia Ward
From Publishers Weekly
In the past decade, contemporary renderings of traditional fairy tales have become a staple of fantasy fiction. This flashy riff on the Pied Piper theme marks a notable extension of the trend and an auspicious debut for its author. Saul Garamond is a restless young Londoner, aimlessly adrift, when he is wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his father. Saul is snatched from the authorities by a mysterious savior named King Rat, who claims to be both the deposed leader of the rodent army driven out of Hamelin 700 years before and Saul's real father. Raised as a human, Saul has much to unlearn before King can teach him to become a worthy opponent of the Rat Catcher, who framed Saul for murder and is still pursuing King. Meanwhile, the Rat Catcher forces his friendship on Saul's composer friend, Natasha, by posing as a flautist who hopes to work his melodies into her "drum 'n' bass" dance music and turn London's hip-hop underground into his unwitting stormtroopers. Though the plot is predictable and Saul's efforts to get in touch with his inner rat are clearly patterned on the Star Wars school of messiah-making, Mi?ville pulls the reader into the story through the kinetic energy of his prose. From the novel's opening image ("The trains that enter London arrive like ships sailing across the roofs"), the narrative crackles with a mesmerizing melange of impressionistic description and street slang that powerfully limns the squalid London cityscape. Paced at the rhythm of the Jungle music it evokes, this dark urban fantasy proves nearly as irresistible as the Pied Piper's tunes.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
Unless people really like your style and want to read anything else you've written, to the point where they find those earlier works, maybe even your debut novel. But while working backwards works for archeologists and contortionists, tracing someone's career back from their high point to the earlier stops on the way doesn't always guarantee the same rewards.
By that circuitous path, we come to China Mieville's first novel.
Anyone who's read "Perdido Street Station" (and it's hard to believe anyone who sought this novel out hasn't read that) was probably impressed by its sense of immersion, it's slightly loopy plotting and above all, its loosely wound lyrical prose, as Mieville managed to create a place that didn't exist and populate its thoroughfares and alleys completely without needing to produce a map. Here, in his first effort (the author bio charmingly states that he's still in graduate school) he takes a place that is actually real (London) and attempts to carve out a fantasy otherworld that is both overlaid and resting alongside the city, where mythological folk concepts flutter and skulk about and things that only previously existed in nursery rhymes are both salvation and danger, if you can figure out the weird rules they operate under. Our lad Saul gets a crash course in that when he comes home to find his father has taken a swan dive out the window . . . since he's young and likes strange music, the police automatically suspect him and while under normal circumstances you would just contact the A-Team, he finds himself rescued by a very odd man who calls himself King Rat. And while it would be amusing if this book was all one long homage to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character, it turns out he is a) actually King of All Rats, b) related to Saul, claiming to be his uncle and c) doing his best to keep Saul from getting killed by a mysterious villain that killed his father and would also like him dead. Poor Saul finds this a lot to digest but with the police on his tail, his friends beginning to disappear like scarves at a magicians' convention and an actual affinity for his new rodent friends, he has no other choice but to learn quickly.
Coming at this backwards from "Perdido Street Station", this one almost feels like a rough worksheet for what would come later. You can see embryonic traces of the idea of city as character, the differences between the people who live in the city and the people who are of the city and the slithery rhythms of the detail in his prose. You have mythological characters making frequent appearances (on top of the villain, who is one of the more famous European legends, you have both kings of the spiders and birds), and a good chunk of it happening in the sideways spaces of the city that seems to exist right alongside all the normal stuff, in all the shadows where your eyes don't normally go. Right in the light of someone taking baby steps into something original, it comes across as a promising debut, where the ideas are good but not astounding, the prose is great but not as compelling as it would later become, the characters interesting but not well drawn enough to be truly memorable yet.
But if you were to read it first and come into it without really knowing anything about China Mieville you might feel like this is just very competently done urban fantasy, decent but not enough to escape the sum of its influences. The scenario, while interesting, feels like warmed over Tim Powers and lacks his tight plotting and twists. Even the attempts to turn London into a mythologically haunted place doesn't come as original as it would like to be and while it has a good sense of place, it suffers by being almost weightless at times, lacking the obsessive detail of Iain Sinclair (whose psychogeography concepts probably take stuff like this to an extreme, although he is quoted as liking this book) or bringing the street-view eye for the fantastic and grotesque that Neil Gaiman would later do in works like "Neverwhere". Even the book's one true stab at originality, the nod toward London's drum and bass culture of the nineties, never feels truly integrated into the plot or a real important part of Saul's life (it feels like something more his friends do and we never really see them leave their apartments to get a true sense of what it means to them) . . . contrasted with something like Emma Bull's "War for the Oaks" where the music is a inseparable part of not only the plot but the characters, to the extent that it makes the novel feel more personal (even if it's not especially autobiographical, at least in that case), the drum and bass stuff feels tacked on, important because the plot requires it to be so, but never more than window dressing, which doesn't seem to be the intent.
Still, the villain is a great attempt at taking someone known through folklore and making them extremely sinister, even if Mieville has to fall back on turning him nearly into a Batman supervillain to make him work (his superstrong physical prowess tends to erase whatever eerie atmosphere he might have). His personalities for the various kings, including their unique accents and speech cadences, at least help them stand apart, even as the plot itself doesn't hold any great surprise. However, even in the beginning Mieville has a way with words and an eye for the interesting scenario and even if the words aren't as distinctive and the scenario not as interesting as what he would later do, its still a well-done, if somewhat standard urban fantasy effort. It may not make you forget the other classics in the genre and depending on how much you are on its wavelength it may not make you run out immediately to look at what else he's done (it would probably send me off to Powers and Blaylock, if nothing else) but there's enough promise there to make you believe with a little more seasoning he might be able to write a story worthy of his talents someday. Fortunately, he did.
The basic plot, with its vaguely sinister animal Kings fighting an old enemy with the aid of a schlubby chosen one, is not particularly mold-breaking, but has more than enough original touches to make it engrossing. The sheer violence and cruelty of the adversary, in particular, lead to some wonderful sections of the book, which are told with an immediacy and ferocity that much of the rest of the book lacks.
Characters, aside from King Rat and the city of London itslef, are often sketched in, or simply not that interesting. Diction ranges from standard genre novel to oddly and immersion-breakingly pretentious, which leads to sharp diversions in tone. Or at the very least a dash to the dictionary.
Like a lot of mid-range fantasy and sci-fi, the ending is a disappointment, accomplished mostly with hand-waving, which robs the reader of the triumphant feeling a satisfying tussle can provide.
In the end, entertaining, but somewhat frustrating. Hopefully, his other work will prove more rewarding.
films. That said, as with all Mieville books, the variations are splendid, not predictable, and, at least for me, are totally gripping. I simply HAVE TO keep going with a book, fitting it into any available time and staying up too late as a way of achieving some of the available time.
So, I say but it, read it, and enjoyment should necessarily follow.
I did not. (In fact I have not yet read Perdido, having recently and reluctantly cancelled virtually all of my magazines due to the sad realization that there was not enough time in my life to keep up with both magazines and books.)
Nevertheless, I believe I would still have valued King Rat as highly as I do now.
King Rat layers levels of reality the way the physical geography of the book is layered with the surface of London, the downbelow, and occsionally the air when Loplop, King of the Birds is aloft.
The portrayal of the Techno - Drum and Bass milieu is perfectly realized as if by someone who must have lived it. The realm(s) of the three Kings, whom I cannot help but identify with Elementals, is both physically well drawn and (intentionally or not) an allegory for the sub-conscious.
The characters are exceptionally well portrayed. The reinvention of the Pied Piper is so audacious and effective that every page where he appears is haunted by a different Kind of Music entirely.
When I finished it, although probably not even the author would agree with the connection, there was nothing for it but to watch my DVD of The Sweet Hereafter, a different sort of work entirely, but one which also uses the Pied Piper as a significant metaphor.
Buy it. Read it. Be moved by it.
Mieville's imagination takes you places you never thought about going and doing what you never thought about doing. Rats, spiders, sewers, rotting food and utter filth are not usually associated with fairy tales. But when you add in the Pied Piper, gore and murder you know for sure you aren't in Kansas.
I'll definitely read more of his books, if for no other reason than to see how much stranger he can get.