Last month, I finally started reading the work of an author who I had been hearing about for years and always meant to try out, China Miéville. I began with his YA fantasy, Un Lun Dun, and found myself just as captivated as so many friends and critics had indicated I would be. After that, I thought it might be a fun idea to gradually make my way through the rest of his canon in order of publication, and so earlier this week, I picked up his first novel, King Rat, and devoured it in under two days.
King Rat actually served as a good companion piece to Un Lun Dun, as the two have quite a bit in common. They are each about a seemingly ordinary person who discovers that he or she has a Destiny of sorts to help rid a hidden underworld of London from a deadly scourge. At their hearts, they are both subversions of the classic fantasy trope of the Chosen One. Whereas Un Lun Dun is actually set in an entirely parallel universe, however, King Rat occurs in the underbelly of our own, in the grimy sewers where the rats live and feast and multiply; Un Lun Dun is whimsical, King Rat dark and eerie. King Rat hinges on a number of truly surprising twists and revelations that I don’t want to give away. Suffice it to say, however, that it is an extremely clever reworking/updating of the Pied Piper of Hamelin myth (already a deceptively creepy tale), told from the rats’ point of view, with the Piper portrayed as an all-powerful, ultimate form of evil who can hold complete control over whatever species he desires by simply playing a different tune on his malevolent flute. Miéville skillfully weaves in other figures from world mythology and culture, including Anansi, the arachnid, West African trickster god, and Loplop, King of the Birds, derived from the drawings of artist Max Ernst, not to mention the concept of the “king rat” itself.
At the start of the novel, Saul Garamond’s father is murdered, and Saul finds himself being carted off to jail for a crime he didn’t commit against a parent whom he loved deeply. Not long afterwards, an extremely strange, mercurial man who calls himself “King Rat” enters his cell and promises him freedom, if he agrees to come with him. King Rat is both the rat monarch and a personification of all that rats are and all they represent. He can make himself unnoticed, even in a crowded room; he can squeeze through gaps that seem too tiny to accommodate someone of his size; he can climb up walls by finding the tiny little imperfections that make perfect handholds for a rat though no one else can see them; he can eat absolutely anything, no matter how vile, without getting sick. Upon meeting Saul, he reveals a secret that the young man never knew about himself and takes him down into the sewers, where he tells him the sad tale of the Piper and why the rat kingdom needs him so desperately.
Although King Rat isn’t as polished as Un Lun Dun, it also revolves around a reluctant protagonist eventually growing into a hero on his own terms, not those that either prophecy or succession has set out for him (Miéville’s Leftist/Socialist politics manifest here, particularly in the denouement), and features a similarly vibrant depiction of a city that brims with such life, it practically transmogrifies into one of the novel’s most important characters. Many of the characters of King Rat are obsessed with the rhythms and beats of Jungle Music and Jazz, and Miéville’s gritty, dirty, gets-under-your-skin portrait of London and its filthy sewers deliberately mimics the experimental nature of this music, weaving above, beneath, and through all levels of the city, darting inside the subconscious of various characters and zooming outwards to places usually left unexplored, with the dexterity and borderless freedom of, well, a rat. This is truly urban fantasy.
One of Miéville’s greatest achievements in the novel is how he makes the rat world seem both enticing and revolting. Wouldn’t it be rather liberating to live in a world where one could travel into places others only dream about and never have to worry about cleanliness or health? On the other hand, yuck. There is not a moment where the image of rats crawling or gnawing or eating didn’t produce a shiver in me, even though as a reader, I was rooting for them to win. In other words, Miéville never Disneyfies these creatures. As humans, we can’t help but shudder, even as our protagonist explores his own liminality, experiencing life devoid of human rules, constraints, and boundaries. In many ways, this is the darkest fairy tale I’ve read, in the sense that the protagonist and the world he comes to inhabit are so divorced from our world’s standards as to be practically alien, not to mention the often horrific acts of the villain. At the same time, Miéville manages to make the main characters feel real and relatable, even in the most outlandish of situations, thanks to his depiction of their inner lives. Saul often flashes back to memories of his childhood and his father, which, along with his anguish and pain over his death, always grounds him in verisimilitude, and the same goes for Saul’s friends, who worry about where he has gone, and one policeman who comes to believe that there may be more to his disappearance than meets the eye.
As absorbing as a fairy tale and as eerie as the pitterpatter of ratty feet whispering from within the walls, King Rat is a most mesmerizing read.