King Rat, China Mieville

Tor, 1998, 318 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-312-89072-9

Quick: Name China Miéville’s first novel.

No, it’s not Perdido Street Station. Miéville may have stormed the world of fantasy with his first Bas-Lag novel, but his true first novel was an urban fantasy novel set in London. Before becoming a Hugo-nominated, world-renowned literary superstar, Miéville wrote King Rat.

I won’t try to be one of those snotty critics disdainfully pointing out that an obscure first work of a famous artist is totally better than the big hit that made him known to the mainstream (assorted with a contemptuous mention of how said artist “sold out”). King Rat isn’t up to Perdido Street Station‘s level of ambition and accomplishment. The prose is leaner, the characters are simpler and the plot is more derivative. It is, in many ways, the work of a young author.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s not worth reading. While it withers in comparison to its younger, more vigorous siblings, King Rat is a perfectly serviceable example of contemporary urban fantasy, riffing off modern culture and ancient myths. Under any other name, it would be a book worth considering without unfair comparisons to the author’s other works.

It begins as a young man, Saul Garamond, comes back home to London after a weekend of camping. A confrontation with his father is narrowly averted, but worse is to come: Shortly after waking up, he discovers that his father is dead, most likely killed, and he finds himself in prison as a prime suspect. But that’s not counting on a mysterious figure called the King Rat, supernaturally springing him from jail and bringing him in London’s underground. London’s real underground. Meanwhile, drum-and-bass DJ Natasha meets a strange flutist with a keen interest in overlaying rhythms…

What gradually emerges from the story is a modern analogue to the Pied Piper fairy tale, although far more violent. There’s a war, you see, a war between the rats and the piper. Now that the story takes place in mid-nineties London, who is to say which technological advantages can change the equation? Poor Saul, stuck with serious paternity issues to solve in the middle of a city-wide fight.

There’s a lot to like about King Rat, and not the most insignificant of those is the fabulous atmosphere that Miéville gives to his semi-imaginary London. His domain is not the tourist London, or the financial or political heart of the nation. His is a London of warehouses, of sewers, of ravers and teenagers.

The novel also comes complete with some cool stuff about updating the Pied Piper myth to modern standards: Mixing in drum-and-bass music in the book’s plot is a minor stroke of genius. King Rat‘s final showpiece is the kind of thing you’d dream up after watching HELLRAISER and listening to too much Prodigy. And to think that we colonials are missing half the local references…

You can also find the book a number of the ingredients that would later make Miéville’s work such a success: Careful prose, downtrodden characters, a fascination for urban spaces and a taste for the grotesque. (A chapter ends with “The glass front of the train burst open like a vast blood-blister. The first Northern Line train of the day arrived at Mornington Crescent station and plowed to an unscheduled halt, dripping.” [P.142] Hardcore!) No one could have predicted the Bas-Lag universe from King Rat, but the points of similitude are there.

Also present, alas, are some of Miéville traditional weaknesses. As short as it is compared to his latter books, King Rat is still a bit overlong and under-plotted. The middle sections, in particular, have a hard time bridging the terrain between the intriguing opening and the dramatic conclusion. Fortunately, you won’t need a thesaurus to read the book: Miéville avoid florid touches and keeps the vocabulary appropriately close to the street.

Fans of urban fantasy shouldn’t miss this book, nor should fans of Miéville’s work in general. It’s interesting even in its problems, and may show where the author will go once he’ll close the books on the Bas-Lag universe. It’s not as successful, nor as ambitious as the tales he’s best-known for, but it’s a good choice for urban fantasy readers. For Miéville’s fans, it should already be regarded as a must-read.

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