Saturday, December 20, 2014

What Lies Beneath

King Rat by China Mieville (1998): The prolific and gifted China Mieville's first novel is an urban fantasy that's about as subterranean and cloachal as they come. It's also a clever, subversive riff on that overused fantasy and science-fiction trope of The Chosen One and his Journey to Adventure

Saul Garamond, a somewhat aimless 30-something living in London with his left-wing, widower father, wakes up to discover that his father has been murdered and that he's the prime suspect. The police lock him up. And then Something rescues him from lock-up and reveals his True Nature to him. 

He's a rat.

In the universe of King Rat, the various animal species all have their avatars, avatars that can appear to be human but are ultimately (supernatural) animals. But Saul is a hybrid of rat and human, his lost mother a member of the Rat's ruling family. He's Prince Rat.

And so off Saul and King Rat go, with King Rat showing Saul a rat's eye view of London and Saul beginning to learn the powers and abilities he has as Prince Rat. Saul sometimes sees these abilities as super-powers, but they're not the sort of powers with which King Arthur or Luke Skywalker or Neo are blessed. Saul flourishes and gains strength by eating rotten food. He moves through the sewers and cracks of the city with ease. And being covered in muck and filth doesn't bother him -- indeed, he enjoys it. 

King Rat has partial allies among the other animal kingdoms, though we meet only the bird and spider kings here. And all three have an Ancient Enemy who's come to London, and against whom they must unite or die. Saul is needed for the war, for reasons that are revealed about halfway through the text.

As a left-wing subversion of traditionally right-wing or conservative fantasy tropes, King Rat is a delight. It's a satisfying read with surprising shifts and turns, and an unusual protagonist in Saul Garamond. The Ancient Enemy's plan for world domination is off-beat but, given the Enemy's real identity, perfectly logical. 

There are some problems -- Mieville's postmodern aversion to closure ends up looking a lot like a plan for a sequel, or at least a young writer's aversion to killing his darlings even when they need to be killed. But it's a grand, effluvium-covered adventure in any case. Recommended.

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