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Book Review: King Rat

Something is astir in the shadows of London’s underbelly. Something ancient and strong. Something with a trail of blood in its wake.

When Saul Garamond returns home late one night, he crawls straight into bed to avoid a confrontation with his estranged father. Hours later he awakens to a swarm of angry blue-suited policemen. The reason? His father has been found dead. And Saul is the primary suspect.

Confined to a cell for further questioning, he’s visited by a bizarre and unsettling stranger – the big-time crime boss. The scavenger chief. The intruder.  The whiskered boy. The Duce of the sewers. The king.

King Rat.

Freed from his cell, Saul embarks on a journey through subterranean passages and rooftops that kiss the cold night sky. His heritage is a dark and powerful one… and he finds himself marked for slaughter in an age-old war of mythic proportions.

Set in 1990s London, King Rat is China Mieville’s debut novel, and a striking one at that. Skillfully plotted and populated with bizarre characters, it’s a dark and twisty Urban Fantasy that cuts from brooding intrigue to violent action as it builds cleverly upon the famous story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

Much praise has been showered on Mieville’s exceptional word-craft, and with one of his books under my belt, I can say with confidence that the praise is well deserved: this guy can write. His prose is vibrant and creative, brimming with allusive imagery that catches the eye and with it, the imagination.

Back in that cell, the grotesque figure calling itself King Rat had impaled Saul with his grandiloquent and preposterous declamations, taking his breath away and rendering him dumb. then he had paused again, and hunched those bony shoulders defensively. And again that invitation, as casual as from a bored lover at a party. “Shall we go?” (p. 36)

If you’re already adding King Rat to your list of potential reads… wait just a minute. I’m not done.

Seeing as how the story largely revolves around rats (and their king), it should come as no surprise that multiple scenes take place in the London sewers. Vile, right? But here’s the thing: those sewers are positively pristine compared to the book’s dialogue.

Unsavory characters in an unsavory setting will naturally speak with unsavory language – so the argument goes, and to a certain extent, I understand the reasoning behind it. Mieville, however, goes over-the-top and higher still. The sheer amount of swearing in King Rat is simply astounding, and I’m not talking about mild stuff, either – this is the type of pervasive gutter language one would expect from a Quentin Tarantino film. Resovoir Dogs is probably a fitting comparison.

“Well,” you say, “that’s how those kinds of people talk. It’s a fact of life.” Maybe so. But Mieville could’ve cut the amount of profanity by half, and still convinced his readers – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that his characters weren’t nice ‘uns.

If you’re still curious about reading this book… don’t be. The interesting story and fine writing do not redeem it.  The overall reading experience can be summed up as follows: it’s like being lambasted with a cricket bat and then coated in raw sewage.