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Bewildering Stories

China Miéville, King Rat

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

King Rat
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: Tor, 1998
Length: 318 pages
ISBN: 0-312-89072-9
There aren’t too many books featuring messy deaths, killer pipers from Hell, and sewer rats as stars of the show that make me burst out laughing as I read the last pages. China Mieville’s book did. Now, I’m not sure the author intended to induce hilarity in his reader. On the contrary, the nostalgic Communist Pie in the Sky ending of King Rat was no doubt supposed to make the reader ponder the righteous ways of Lenin. Sorry, Mieville. The image of the sewer rats celebrating their new republic just made me howl.

Mieville apparently belongs to that left-leaning strain of self-conscious British intellectualism made more notorious by his predecessors, the Cambridge Five. How charmingly retro it feels now Philby and his lot have met their destiny. And at least, unlike some of his peers in the British speculative fiction market, Mieville does not indulge in anti-American sneers and anti-religious jibes. Not in this book, anyway.

Mieville’s urban fable is, in fact, unexpectedly sweet. Saul is an inarticulate and sulky son, unable to communicate with his increasingly desperate, loving (and leftist) daddy. Coming home late from a camping trip, Saul doesn’t want to deal with the irritating affection of Dad late at night. Saul sneaks in to guilty slumber without greeting Dad.

But in the morning, he’s awakened by the police pounding on the door. Dad apparently went out the window and smashed himself, and it looks like it was an involuntary flight. Saul’s bundled up and taken to the police station. His penchant for arguments and door slams comes back to haunt him. The cops finger him as the likely suspect.

But unexpected help comes to grief-stricken Saul, languishing forgotten in his cell. A peculiar shadowy person, arrogant and defensive in turn, offers to spring him from the clink. The person, who boastfully names himself ‘King Rat’, smells like a sewer rat indeed. Saul can’t quite see his eyes. Still, the rat-man is as good as his word. He spirits Saul right out from under the heavy hand of the law.

But King Rat (who claims to be Saul’s uncle) has some shocking news for Saul. Saul, too, is a rat-man. Not only that, the Evil Piper from Hell (and Hamelin) is out to get Saul. Everything and everyone dances to the Piper’s tune, except for hybrid half-human, half-rat Saul. Saul’s the only hope King Rat has of re-gaining the kingdom he lost when he turned tail and ran from the Piper of Hamelin. At last, he’ll get those sewer rats to respect their king again

In the course of training to become a new rat Prince, Saul learns a lot of unpleasant truths about himself, his father’s death, and his self-proclaimed uncle. When the Piper abuses and uses Saul’s musically inclined friends in a plot to control the world, Saul, the passive and surly son, at last seizes life with the vigor his father despaired of ever seeing in him. It’s Saul’s decision to honor his father that at last inspires Saul to be a hero.

Mieville’s book is a modern urban fable which shines through well-drawn characters and a witty Dickens-dark atmosphere. Saul’s someone the reader can sympathize with in spite of his ratty nature.

If the ending of the book is comical, well, the Down with the Monarchy, Up with the Proletariat (when the excited, newly liberated proletariat are really sewer rats) actually suits Saul’s naïve spirit. When Saul tenderly clutches his little red book of Lenin to his chest, he’s honoring his activist father. Ah, how sweet. Long live gentle Saul, no matter how furry, smelly, or left-leaning he grows. Enjoy!

P. S. One caveat: if frequent four-letter words bother you, don’t read this one. If the characters weren’t bleeping it out, the dialogue might be cut in half. Modern times: the good-hearted hero has a mouth on him.

Copyright © 2011 by Danielle L. Parker

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