King Rat, by China Mieville

king-rat-by-china-mieville coverGenre: Modern/Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by James Michael White

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Any story that makes you want to be more like its heroes, even its tragic ones, has something going for it, even if those heroes happen to be rats. China Mieville creates in the titular character of King Rat one of modern literature’s most dashing, troubled, and engaging characters at whose panache even DC comics might marvel because this novel has far more in common with comic books than novels in its ability to strike an attitudinal pose. In this case that pose is a superhero’s, and it belongs to a skinny, blurry figure in a wind-whipped coat skulking atop a London skyline.

The story revolves around Saul Garamond, a young man existing upon the social fringe of music and dopers. He returns from a camping trip to find his father murdered. The cops blame him and haul him off to jail. Once there, Saul meets King Rat, a man, a thing, a being whose face he can never quite see yet who possesses sufficient superpowers of sneaking, creeping, climbing, and strength to offer Saul easy removal from his cell. Wasting little time, King Rat informs him that his world has changed:

“…I appear, like a bloody angel of mercy. I spring your jigger, no problem. This is where I live, get it? This is the city where I live. It shares all the points of yours and theirs, but none of its properties. I go where I want. And I’m here to tell you how it is with you. Welcome to my home.”

This voice, the voice of King Rat, is the novel’s strength. It possesses an immediacy Mieville fails to, or doesn’t try to, evoke from any of his other characters, drawing our ear to everything he has to say, making other dialogue seem perfunctory by comparison. That this slangy scutterbum also makes the kind of amazing tutelary expeditions across London’s rooftops that we might expect to see drawn in bold sweeps of comic book color is part of what helps create his appeal. He seems contradictory, at once a rat, after all, in speech and manner, yet one who also seems to fly, to harbor great secrets, and move with power and style enough to amaze.

By contrast, Saul, the centerpiece of a vengeance plot interestingly based upon the Pied Piper story, comes off as a typical example of petulant youth angered by the sudden turn of events in his otherwise humdrum life, events that have turned precisely because, as King Rat tells him, “There’s something out there wants your head, chal…” Saul’s moaning about his woe isn’t nearly as interesting as King Rat’s seething for revenge, and in at least a couple of Saul’s places you can hear the skid plates of this story banging hard against the rocks of we almost, we just almost, don’t care. That some of this occurs early is unfortunate because it might turn off readers who, getting past the slack start, might otherwise enjoy the novel.

Fortunately, the story moves mostly apace, introducing us to Saul’s soon-to-fall-into-peril chums because, hey, clever plotting ain’t what’s for sale here. Chief among these chums — plot-wise, anyway — is Natasha, a musician, and it is in his attempt to convince us how special her music is that Mieville errs a bit on the repetitive side. There seems to be only so much you can say about music in prose without it becoming tedious, and trying to convey Natasha’s rapture doesn’t quite work. Then there’s best-bud Fabian, a bike messenger, who worries a lot for his absent buddy and rages against his own isolation. Neither character is explored in much psychological depth, but that’s not what’s for sale here, either, Mieville rendering them and others in the kind of background color and simple detail that makes King Rat look all the more tip-top amid the functionaries.

Although the plot is as simplistic as the prose, both work to a kind of classical efficiency. Yes, we know where things are going once we understand what’s at stake, and yes there aren’t any surprises as a result (except, perhaps, why Saul’s desperate measure to save himself from the villain’s puppet at one point does not translate into an obvious protective measure at a later one), but it is largely the force of King Rat’s personality and his desire for vengeance at almost any cost, a desire with which we sympathize, that drives our interest — not the clicking of gears in a cleverly made plot machine. In a similar fashion, the prose serves its narrative purpose without being artsy and without suffering unduly from a lack of art. Yes, the prose sometimes becomes repetitive and dull. Yes, it offers little flair beyond it’s mostly oleaginous ability to flow, but the occasional rawness here can be perceived as akin to that of King Rat himself, and the novel as a whole: Unrefined, not without its flaws, yet captivating nonetheless.

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