The Plot: Twenty-something Saul isn’t close to his father, but when the older man falls out an apartment window to his death Saul is devastated, more so because he was in the apartment himself. The police are convinced Saul is a murderer, and he seems destined for a lifetime in prison–until a mysterious stranger shows up to spring him out. King Rat leads Saul into London’s underbelly, where fairy tale creatures lurk beneath the pavement. Soon Saul comes to see that his own history, and his father’s murder, are inextricably bound up in an age-old battle between the spirits of the animals and the spirit of the catcher, a dark figure known only as the Piper.
The author: King Rat was China Miéville’s first novel. He has written six more novels and several short stories since then, winning three Arthur C. Clarke awards amid a host of other honors. Miéville holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and has run for the House of Commons as a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He lives in London.
Why It’s Awesome: This is no magic-laden Disney fairy tale. King Rat has a dark, gritty, entirely urban mythos that sets it almost completely apart from other fantasy stories (the closest equivalent I can think of is Gaiman’s American Gods). The action takes place in the back alleys, the corners under bridges, the junk yards and tube stations of London, and the characters all seem slightly lost in a world that has perhaps grown too large for them.
Miéville’s writing is at once colloquial and deceptively elegant. It is a delight to read. (who else can describe rotten food with a poetry that almost makes you hungry?) The contrast between subject matter and style elevates the story and gives a sort of epic-saga feeling to events taking place in a sewer or warehouse club.
Music is also a large part of the story, particularly Jungle, a genre digitally constructed from samples, loops, and computer-generated beats. I don’t know much about Jungle music (and I’m guessing I wouldn’t be a fan), but Miéville writes about it in a way that lets us feel we are right in the center of the Jungle scene. His descriptions of music –always a hard thing to write about–are spot on; they don’t just let you know what is happening in the piece, but how it feels and why it’s there. One of the main characters is a composer of Jungle, if that’s the right word, and I particularly enjoyed the sections featuring her composing.
Why It’s Not Awesome: Miéville over-uses the f-word. I have no objection to swearing in and of itself, and given the characters and setting it would be weird if there weren’t some colorful language. The problem is that at critical moments Miéville leans so heavily on the f-bomb that it becomes repetitive. The word loses its power after so many uses, and it dumbs down a writing style that is otherwise darkly beautiful.
There is also a lot of violence. I’m not sure this is a criticism so much as a warning; for the most part it fits the setting and story, but I found I couldn’t read it over lunch.
Favorite quote: “He realized that he had defeated the city. He crouched on the roof (of what building he did not know) and looked out over London at an angle from which the city was never meant to be seen. He had defeated the conspiracy of architecture, the tyranny by which the buildings that women and men had built had taken control of them, circumscribed their relations, confined their movements.”
The Final Judgment: A dark urban fantasy that will redefine your view of the Pied Piper story.