Nov 18, 2008

King Rat by China Miéville

“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.
I’m King Rat.”
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.

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.

Other Opinions:
everyday reads
The Ax for the Frozen Sea


  1. Sounds cool and I agree with you about 'urban fantasy'. It's one of the things that attracted me to Saintcrow's Dante Valentine series - the gritty, alive feel of the cities.


  2. this does sound good, I hadnt heard of this one before.

    'an urban fantasy, a murder mystery, a horror story and a fairy tale' all in one book sounds very good.

    great review :)

  3. How funny -- "Reports of Certain Events in London" is the only thing I've read from Mieville, too. The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2005, right?

  4. I've often wondered if I would enjoy books by China Mieville but been put off by their reputation of being difficult reads. Your review encourages me to think I should give him a try at least once because this book sounds fascinating!

  5. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth! This one sounds good! And I love how you defined 'urban fantasy', because people often relate the fairies, elves etc (you named it) to this modern world. Like you, I'd love to read one which tells us more about the cities and the history if there's any.

    Will have to check this one out! ;)

  6. King Rat was my first Mievielle novel as well, and he's since become one of my favorite authors. He's got a way with images that astounds me- the man can draw worlds in my head with a few words that I never thought I was capable of imagining.

  7. I think you might like Kockroach by Tyler Knox. There's a review in my blog somewhere.

  8. You've made me want to read "King Rat"! I agree with you about urban fantasy, and "Neverwhere" was the first I read in the genre as well. :) I hope you get "Un Lun Dun"; I read it a couple of months ago, and loved it!

  9. As I was reading your review, I kept picturing the big rat in "The Nutcracker" ballet!

    I don't think I've ever read "urban fantasy." This book sounds very unique and creative! As always...great review!!

  10. I've read Un Lun Dun and really liked it! One of these days I need to read another book him!

  11. What fun! I have enjoyed the urban fantasies I've read so far, but I haven't expanded my horizons too much so far. I always get great suggestions from you though!

  12. Off subject, I noticed in your sidebar that you're reading Inkheart. That was one of my favorite reads of last year. Don't you LOVE the literary quotes with which Cornelia heads each chapter? Don't you LOVE the library in each room of the Aunt's house? I'm going to begin Inkspell soon, and I just bought the newest release Inkheart. Fantastic books, and the kids love them, too. (Dragon Rider, and The Thief Lord, are also good, but the Inkheart series are the best I think.)

  13. I've had this one and Un Lun Dun on my wishlist for awhile now. I'm the same as Urban Fantasy. I'd probably go as far as to say that it's my favorite subgenre of fantasy. When Card does it (like with Magic Street) it's wonderful and de Lint always does an absolutely amazing job. This definitely sounds like a keeper.

  14. This sounds good. You are so right about 'Urban fantasies'. Cities have customs, traditions and hidden secrets just like rural areas. I know so many rumours about certain places in my city and it's even scarier knowing that it is a place which is in a crowded area. And i am digressing. Nice review.

  15. Happy to know you enjoyed this one. I have read Mieville's Un Lun Dun and it was enjoyable although I wasn't crazy about it. Can't wait to hear what you think of it though. :)

  16. Haven't read an urban fantasy in quite a while, but you've reminded me how much I've enjoyed de Lint, et. al. I will have to add this to my Friday Finds post later this week.

    Oh, and... Tag, you're it!

  17. Alex loves him and I quite like him. I hope to read King Rat and Un-Lun-Dun at some stage which I think would be better than the Perdido Street Station series. Oh and his collected short stories are supposed to be good too. There is one in particular Alex read me about Ikea!

  18. I wasn't really sure whether I would enjoy his stories or not. Now I'm thinking, "Yep...I definitely need to give him a try!" I know Annie really enjoyed Un-Lun-Dun. Now if I can only get to it before she's old enough to move out and take all her books with her. ;)

  19. I was at the part where King Rat broke Saul out of prison and then completely, totally forgot about picking up where I left off for something that pulled my attention away :( Must remedy this soon! Then again, I'm currently on a series binge :P

    --> I love stories that acknowledge the strangeness of modern cities and the fascination they exert.

    I totally agree. Great insights as always. Oh and I emailed you earlier about Un Lun Dun. I'm sure you'll love the collection of short stories as well. The one Rhinoa mentioned, the short story on a place similar to Ikea is really creepy :)

  20. CJ: I haven't heard of that series but I'll look it up!

    Naida: Mieville is known for mixing different genres, or defying genre boundaries. Judging by this book, he does it very well.

    Loren: I read it in a different anthology, but I'm not surprised it made it to the year's best!

    Cath: I had the same impression, actually, but this one was very hard to put down! Maybe it helps that unlike Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, etc. it's not a chunkster.

    Melody: It's not that I haven't read great stories with elves, werewolves, etc. in modern cities, but I especially love the ones that take the magic from the city itself.

    Corvus: I know what you mean and I agree!

    Dewey: Found your review, and yes, I think I'll like it!

    Marineko, I really look forward to it :)

    Laura: lol! I think I can see why :P And thank you :)

    Kailana: I've heard great things about that one. Can't wait to get to it.

  21. Kim, I hope you enjoy this one :)

    Bellezza, I'm only a little over a hundred pages into it, but so far, so good! You know, I'd heard a lot about the book, but I didn't remember that there'd be quotes at the beginning of each chapter. They were a wonderful surprise :D And Elinor's library is simply wonderful!

    Chris: Yes, Magic Street is another great one! And de Lint is very good at it as well.

    Violetcrush: Feel free to digress! I really enjoyed reading what you had to say :)

    Alice: I've seen some less than stellar reviews too, actually, but I have faith that I'll enjoy it. It sounds exactly like my kind of book.

    Marina, hope you enjoy this one when you get to it! And thanks for the tag, I'll go check it out now.

    Rhinoa: I've heard great things about Looking for Jake as well. The Perdido Street series intimidates me a bit, probably because they're so long, but I'll get to it at some point after Un Lun Dun.

    Debi, I do think you would! And don't worry, plenty of time before that still :P

    Lightheaded: But that's just when it was getting really good! :P And thaaaaank you. Let me reply to you properly there. You are all making me curious about the Ikea story!

  22. This one's on my wishlist! (Although it already was before I read your review, so I can't blame you for adding to my TBR pile... this time. :)

    I've read Mieville's Perdido Street Station, and the world and the city he created were so real that after reading, I'd have the really strong desire to take a shower to get the grime off of me.

  23. Well that's different! Rats themselves kind of freak me out (mainly thanks to The Bone Collector) but I always liked the wererats in the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton.

  24. I haven't heard of this one, but I've wanted to read Perdido Street Station for years now! Not sure how he fell off my radar, but it happened for a while!

  25. I'm not a big reader of urban fantasy but this one sounds so good. I loved that opening sequence you posted. I mean, who is this guy?! Thanks for the great review Nymeth!

  26. This sounds amazing. A good reading choice for the Year of the Rat!

  27. Fyrefly: I'll get to Perdido Street Station eventually. I suspect he's an author I could really get into.

    Ladytink: Wererats! I didn't know that series had them!

    Andi: I can't remember how I first heard of him either, but I suspect Neil Gaiman might be involved. I can trace half my favourite fantasy authors back to him :P

    Iliana: It's very intriguing, isn't it?

    Melaine: I actually didn't remember it was the Year of the Rat!

  28. From the title I immediately thought of Neverwhere and then read the part about the Underground. I haven't read a whole lot of urban fantasy, but this does sound interesting. Love the quote you used--I think maybe it's the personification--the city yawning--that catches my attention.

  29. I agree with you in regards to your feelings about cities. Sure cities can get very muddled with urban sprawl, etc. but at their heart there is so much history and culture in cities and I too am fascinated with authors use this as a part of the story they are telling. There is so much folklore and mythology in cities that have been around for awhile and that truth, interspersed with fiction, can make for a rich, rewarding story.

  30. Trish: There's that, yes, and there are other passages in the book where he hints at the city being a living organism. I just love it :)

    Carl: Exactly. You know I love fantasy, but sometimes I do get tired of seeing so many pseudo-medieval settings. There's a lot of storytelling potential in cities, and until recently it seemed that only a handful of authors were exploring it. But I have the impression that things have been changing lately!


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