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Somewhere between the gaps, in the unseen corners, and under the streets of London lies a different world. A world of rats and of things that aren't completely rats - like the sharp-nosed King Rat himself. When Saul finds himself suddenly thrust into a world of death and police and suspicion, it is King Rat who whisks him away into a world that's stranger yet: the world of rotten food, and noisome smells, and where no rooftop or corner or cubby hole is out of bounds. Forget the old ways, Saul - this is who you really are, proclaims King Rat: you are my nephew, and you are half rat.
Saul's new life is a mix of the gruesome - eating garbage - and the glorious: the ability to scale walls and move invisibly around the city, like some verminous superhero. But all is not quite as simple as a rat's life: something, some Rat Catcher, is on Saul's trail - and perhaps responsible for the death of Saul's father whilst on the hunt. Who is this deadly foe, what does he have against a half-rattling newcomer; and why exactly is King Rat so despised by his people?
I've been a huge fan of China [yes, China - not 'Chine'!] Mieville's later work, particularly the wonderfully imaginative Perdido Street Station. It's always a risk moving backwards and seeking out earlier novels, but then what's life without a risk or two? ;)
King Rat is still a fantasy novel, but without the more obvious fantasy setting of Bas Lag (Perdido, The Scar, Iron Council). Here, Mieville's status as a local brings his London backdrop very much to life, while at the same time exploring the underside. It reminded me of a much darker, grimier kind of Neverwhere, the Neil Gaiman novel set in an alternate, side-by-side version of London. Here the real city is the real city, the underside at once both real (rats, sewers, spiders, etc) and with an overlayer of sheer fantasy: King Rat, Loplop the 'Bird Superior', and Anansi the spider king.
As such, King Rat reads very much like a dark fairy tale. A very, very dark fairy tale - with themes, scenes and language very definitely not suitable for younger readers! Which perhaps makes it all the more strange when the plot is revealed to have a base in the fable of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. It's not hard to guess the roots, really, although the strength of the connection surprised me when finally brought to the fore. It disappointed me slightly, really, as basing your (albeit debut) work on a known story feels a bit like cheating.
Which isn't to say King Rat is at all derivative - far from it! The author has a real skill in blending the familiar with the utterly outlandish, and with a deft touch for the English language. Although picking up a familiar character or two along the way, Mieville's treatment of them is far from fable-like. Here there are always ulterior motives and nasty surprises around the corner, as Saul finds himself stuck not only between the worlds of Man and Rat, but also in the middle of a millennia-old battle and with a bigger role than he's prepared for.
And alongside this fantasy weaves another strong root for the story: Drum and Bass music. I thought this would be more of a turn-off than it was, as it's definitely not my choice of music. However, perhaps enough time has passed since this book was penned (I'm shocked to find that 1998 was over a decade ago!) that the fanaticism for the beat - and the slightly stereotypical characters surrounding it - seems almost as fantastical as the rest of the book. It's another world to me; what someone who remembers the 'real scene' would make of the scribbling I couldn't tell you!
I can't say if you liked Perdido Street Station then you'll like this. It's easy enough to place this novel at the beginning of Mieville's career, with its derivations and slight lack of subtlety. However, you can see obvious glimmers of the talent that blossomed once the author braved (the creation of) a whole new world. My main love for his later novels like The Scar came from the depth and poetry of the descriptions: there's still a lot of that going on here, it's just a bit off putting that what's being described is so dark and smelly and slimy!
Overall, King Rat is a fairly one-note story picking up strands from fairy tales and urban rhythms. I suspect I enjoyed it more as a backwards glimpse of an emerging talent and style, rather than for the story itself - which was far from unenjoyable, but lacking a depth or any truly likable characters. Perhaps if any of the themes - Jungle music, socialist politics or London itself, or even the setting time-wise - were closer to home I might have connected a little more with things; as it was I'll half-recommend it as a quirky bit of entertainment, although nowhere near the standard of the author's subsequent, far more imaginative, works.
Paperback: 421 pages (Pan 1999)
First published in 1998