“I’m the big-time crime boss. I’m the one that stinks. I’m the scavenger chief, I live where you don’t want me. I’m the intruder. I killed the usurper, I take you to safekeeping. I killed half your continent one time. I know when your ships are sinking. I can break your traps across my knee and eat the cheese in your face and make you blind with my piss. I’m the one with the hardest teeth in the world, I’m the whiskered boy. I’m the Duce of the sewers, I run the underground. I’m the king.The night Saul Garamond returns to London after a camping trip, his estranged father dies under mysterious circumstances. Saul is asleep in his room at the time, and when the police arrive they immediately suspect him. But Saul’s life is about to become much, much stranger. A creature who calls himself King Rat breaks him out of jail and makes some startling revelations about Saul's past, namely the mother he never met. And so our adventure begins – an adventure that takes us to the London underground, to the world of Drum ‘n’ Bass music, to darkness and to mystery.
I’m King Rat.”
King Rat is an urban fantasy, a murder mystery, a horror story and a fairy tale. China Miéville mixes an urban setting, elements of the Pier Piper fairy tale, and fascinating characters like King Rat himself, Anansi the spider and Loplop, chief of birds. The result is an immensely riveting book.
I’m a big fan of urban fantasy, and by “urban fantasy” I don’t just mean stories that take elves, fairies, werewolves, you name it, and drop them into cities. What I mean is that I love stories that acknowledge the strangeness of modern cities and the fascination they exert. I don’t really have much patience for those who claim that cities have no traditions, no costumes, no folklore – no stories – and that these things are inseparable from an irrecoverable rural past.
Yes, there is loneliness and isolation in modern cities, and yes, life tends to be fast and chaotic and hard to cope with. But cities are full of people, and people will go on doing what they’ve always done, even if in smaller ways. So yes, there are stories and myths in modern cities, and I love novels that explore that – Neverwhere is for me the prime example, probably because it was the first of its kind that I read, but there are many others out there.
King Rat is one of those novels, and it does what it does very well indeed. Judging by the only other thing I’ve read by Miéville so far (the short story “Reports of Certain Events in London) and the things I’ve heard about Un Lun Dun, this seems to be a reoccurring theme in his fiction.
Other than recreating old stories in a modern setting, King Rat deals with themes like powerlessness and domination, individuality and identity, choices, friendship, loneliness and family ties. The characters, even the secondary ones, are all fully fleshed. And I couldn’t have loved the writing more. How can I not love a writer who comes up with sentences like “The city had been made unsafe. Saul felt it yawn before him, infinitely vaster than he had imagined, unknowable and furtive.” Don’t ask me why I love it so much. I just do.
So: King Rat was my first Miéville novel, but it certainly won’t be my last. Un Lun Dun is so going on my Christmas list.
The Ax for the Frozen Sea