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10 thoughts on “King Rat

  1. says:

    King Rat was first published by British author China Mieville in 1998, his debut novel.

    A reader in the speculative fiction genre will certainly make comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s work Neverwhere published in 1996. The setting, tone, and unsettlingly charismatic underwordliness of the two books are too similar to escape association.

    A careful reader will also find similarities with Gaiman’s magnificent American Gods and the somewhat sequel Anansi Boys, but WAIT! American Gods was first published in 2001 and Anansi was published in 2005. Mieville’s work anticipated Gaiman’s delving into personified mythos and pantheistic, animistic deification.

    Mieville, an aficionado of role playing games, may have been inspired by Deities & Demigods: Cyclopedia of Gods and Heroes from Myth and Legend, the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons tome of supernaturals and superheroes, which has a section about animal gods and heroes.

    Using as his villain a revisionist Pied Piper of Hamelin, Mieville also draws a parallel to Haruki Murakami’s 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore, which features a madman who wanted to create a flute from dead souls.

    King Rat is a story about a city, as all of Mieville’s tales are told, and this one is about London. It is also about music; urban, dance music, that attracts and makes young lithe bodies move and grind. And, yes, it is about rats … lots of rats. Readers beware.

    This, his first published novel, rings with a promise of literary magic, it is the herald of a new voice in our bookish clan. When I finished Kraken, my first Mieville offering, I thought the book good, but was intrigued by its author and the talent that was evident (I would later learn that Kraken was perhaps his weakest). I finished Perdido Street Station with heartfelt disappointment as what had the hope of being a classic, faded and ended poorly. Embassytown and The City and the City were both weird gems and to this reader The Scar finally delivered the promise of what he can produce.

    King Rat was a momentous, promising first novel from a man who has demonstrated again and again that he is a great writer and undoubtedly he will show us much more over the next few years.

    description


  2. says:

    "Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree."
    True to Pratchett's wit and wisdom, even China Mieville's frustratingly good writing had to have its beginnings. And so it begins here, in his first novel 'King Rat', which - as many readers have noted - reads like a close cousin¹ to Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere'.
    ¹ A cousin that the elderly relatives mention only in hushed whispers at family reunions. The heavily tattooed one, with piercings in places you don't want to think of, clad in studded leather, riding a flashy motorbike, smelling of stale alcohol, with needle tracks on his arms. That one.
    It's the first novel of His Chinaness (the expression I shamelessly stole from Richard and plan to keep using for a while), and it shows. It lacks the slightly arrogant exceedingly self-confident polishing its later siblings boast. It's rougher around the edges, it alternates between flaunting the sheer shock value and sulking around the corner like a dissatisfied teenage quasi-rebel, trying hard to nonchalantly look cool. It's still looking for its footing, in short.

    It's a novel of London's quite literal underbelly; the creatures that lurk in the sewers and gorge themselves on garbage. It has rats, and filth, and piss, and gruesome murders and overall level of grotesque that made me put this book away a few times just to purge my brain of the images I really did not want to be setting camp there. It plays with legends and fairy tales, and centuries-long vendettas. It peppers its pages with rhyming Cockney slang which seriously tries to break my poor brain. It takes the reader on a flight across the roofs and walls of London, taking my breath away (and making me hold the said breath because of the stink of rot and piss that the pages gleefully convey).


    (Illustration by Richard A. Kirk - found here)

    Yes, I easily see its flaws. The characters developed a tad too thinly. The plot lines and characters that appear dropped. The gruesome scenes that seem to be thrown in jugs for kicks. Yes, it's there, as much as I hate to admit it.

    It's amazing that right after this still unsure and, honestly, not yet great book China Mieville would go on to capture the readers with the flight of fantasy in the filthy New Crobuzon of 'Perdido Street Station' - which, if you think about it, is just a quick leap away from the strange beyond-the-surface London of 'King Rat'. My favorites of his - 'The Scar', 'Un Lun Dun' and 'Embassytown' - will come even later, once the skill and deceitful easiness of perfection of his writing reach their dizzying heights.

    But the glimpses of what we all came to love in Mieville's books are already here.
    “I can squeeze between buildings through spaces you can’t even see. I can walk behind you so close my breath raises gooseflesh on your neck and you won’t hear me. I can hear the muscles in your eyes contract when your pupils dilate. I can feed off your filth and live in your house and sleep under your bed and you will never know unless I want you to.”
    Already in this first far from perfect try there are the bits that will come to shine in Mieville's writing with time. His ability to create characters so grey that they are quite murky. His knack for developing a setting so alive and vivid that it becomes a character in it's own right, underbelly and all. His descriptions that jugs fly off the page and already have the same captivating quality that won the fans over in 'Perdido Street Station':
    “The trains that enter London arrive like ships sailing across the roofs. They pass between towers jutting into the sky like long-necked sea beasts and the great gas-cylinders wallowing in dirty scrub like whales.”
    Besides London (un-London, perhaps, in the spirit of books to come?) literal sub-culture this novel focuses on the youth subculture as well, heavily featuring the Drum'n'Bass music - the music, I confess, I had to look up on YouTube to understand what it's about. Like language in 'Embassytown', it's always present even when it's not. Its beats provide a beating heart to this book (yes, I actually tried to come up with this pun; I'm uncool like that, okay?) and pay off nicely in the end.

    As far as China Mieville's writing goes, 'King Rat' is an early, rough offering lacking the sophistication of its later siblings. But had it come from most other writers - those lacking Mieville's amazing way with words - it could have been seen as a strong and very promising work, a proud accomplishment. It's pretty good - it just does not yet live up to the genius to come.

    And now, with that dreadful sinking feeling, I realize that besides 'Looking for Jake' I have no other Mieville books to read. His Chinaness needs to quickly write something new. I'm addicted and I need my fix.
    'I’m just one of you,’ he said.
    ‘I’m Citizen Rat.'


  3. says:

    CRITIQUE:

    Lessons in Rhythm and History

    Saul Garamonde is meant to be half-man, half-rat, though quite how his state eventuated defies at least my imagination.

    He looks like a human being, but has rat blood coursing through his veins, and soon acquires rat characteristics, such as the ability to climb up brick walls and tall buildings.

    His father was a fat (sic) socialist, and once gifted him a copy of Lenin's “What is to Be Done?”

    Father and son are estranged, and are frequently overheard arguing with each other. However, Saul is clearly sentimental about his father's old leftist leanings, even if he was never particularly effectual.

    Much of the action in the novel takes place in late 1990's London between Brixton and Ladbroke Grove, and between Battersea and Clapham. Mieville describes streets “busy with Lebanese patisseries, mini-cab firms and cut-price electrical repair shops, dirty video stores and clothing warehouses with hand-drawn signs advertising their wares.”

    Four chapters into the novel, I noticed that the writing was rich and descriptive, but I had no idea where the plot would take me. No sooner had I realised this than the plot revved up and took off like a jet plane.

    I initially suspected that Saul was destined to lead a socialist revolution on behalf of the rats. To this extent, “King Rat" resembles William T Vollmann's “You Bright and Risen Angels", in which the character Bug leads a rebellion of insects against humanity. However, the resemblance soon evaporates, as we learn that the immediate enemy of both Saul and the rats is a flautist called “The Piper", who wishes to kill Saul in case he might frustrate his [the Piper's] mission to rid the world of these upwardly mobile vermin.

    Saul hangs out with two cadres, one associated with King Rat (who has imperial ambitions of his own), the other consisting of a collective of Drum and Bass aficionados.

    The rats seem to represent the proletariat, while the Drum and Bass fans are more of a cultural collective, if not exactly anarchist. Whatever their real or metaphorical nature, they never establish an alliance, and seem to inhibit each other's progress.

    As it turns out, the rats just want to be led and unified, though towards what goal isn't clear. Saul seems intent on protecting them from their herd mentality.


    “Row upon row of anxious eyes, gazing at him, demanding that he command them. They oppressed him.”

    Rude Secular Energy

    Saul is the vehicle by which rats will earn respect and self-respect. He doesn't want the position of their boss or their King. He doesn't believe in kings:

    “You don't need champions. It's time for a revolution. You were led by a monarch for years, and he brought you to disaster. Then years of anarchy, fear, searching for a new ruler, the fear isolating you all so you didn't have faith in your nation.”

    Saul warns the rats against King Rat, who was both a monarch and the “Great Betrayer". So there is a scepticism about social movements that are premised on nothing more than the seizure of power.

    Clearly, the answer is neither monarchy nor anarchy. There's also a risk that members of a vanguard leading a revolution might betray the revolution or the dignity of the masses, in the manner of Stalin.

    So, to the extent that there is any underlying political message, it seems to be founded in the ideas of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

    Indeed, Saul urges them, with a grin, to “put the rat back in fraternity."



    VERSE:

    Saul's Old Man He Dead

    Gwan gyal, gwan gyal?
    Yo yo, Tasha? You heard
    What gwan Saul's old man?
    Old mon, he dead now.
    Dat old leftie, he no more.
    Fell outta high winda,
    And hitter da below ground,
    Widda splash anna bang.
    Saul's old man, he dead now.


    SOUNDTRACK:
    (view spoiler)

  4. says:

    Ooboy.

    Well.

    Before China became His Chinaness, he wrote King Rat.

    I found this book hard to read. It’s just so…grim. And I’m not only referring to the gratuitous gross-outs and gore. It’s something about the overall feel of the book. The way the characters behave towards each other is just awful.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I think I liked it. The book is an immersive experience. The descriptions make you live the story through all five senses - for better or for worse, considering it looks like dirt, smells like piss, tastes like rot, sounds like bass, and feels like a greasy countertop.

    The first act was great and got me hooked; the second act was a bit all over the place, but whatever, most second acts are; and the third act was positively apotheosic. But it had two serious rubs: one being Miéville’s lack of experience, which shows at the seams and becomes all the more apparent if you’ve read his later works; and the other being its borderline overbearing sense of woe.

    (Miéville admits in the Acknowledgements that he was going through a 'generally rubbish year' while writing it. No shit.)

    You see, when I reviewed Embassytown , I praised the sense of despair that pervaded the book because it felt calculated; I felt like the author was in total control of what was going on. In King Rat the grim factor seems flailing and unfocused, to the point of being bathetic.

    Now, we have to talk about Peake.

    Miéville has made abundantly clear his admiration for Mervyn Peake. And I could swear that in the first half of this book, especially when describing the titular King Rat’s acrobatic antics, intentionally or not, he was imitating the cartoonish hyper-detailed way mannerisms are conveyed in Titus Groan . Hell, he even throws in a Peakester egg, comparing a building in London’s financial district to Gormenghast Castle.

    I’m not even sure this is a bad thing. It is a debut novel, after all. Here we see Miéville finding his voice, and it’s kind of endearing to see his influences in relief. But this isn’t yet a Miévillian work; these are but the shabby baby steps of the crown prince tottering on his way to the throne, or should I say, throwing a stone and an ivy branch into the lake.


  5. says:

    I have read quite a few books by China Miéville by now. Some of them I loved and some I really liked but this one I struggled with. It was all so dark and despairing and frequently disgusting. In parts it was also a bit boring. Some credits are due for originality at least for the parts about the rats. The descriptions of London were good and the ending wrapped everything up nicely. Peter's actual identity was a a nice touch too. So just an okay book which I am glad I did not read as my first by this author. If I had read it first I would not have read any more of his books and I would have missed out on some wonderful reading!


  6. says:

    KING RAT was my introduction to China Mieville, and I was hooked by his writing. This was a great premise and a story that's very well told.


  7. says:

    WARNING: If the following image causes you to recoil from your computer in terror, King Rat is decidedly not the book for you:
    Rats!

      SQUEEEEEEEEK!
    

    On the other hand, if you can look these horrors in the face without losing your lunch, then I very much recommend China Miéville’s entertaining first book. King Rat tells the story of Saul Garamond, a luckless Londoner who is blamed for his father’s untimely death before you can shake a whisker. Happily for Saul, a mysterious stranger named King Rat breaks our hero out of the pokey and introduces Saul to a very new kind of lifestyle. However, Saul’s new life is quickly threatened by a figure from King Rat’s past. I don’t want to give anything away but Miéville does a great job in spinning this story out over 318 pages, particularly considering that this is his very first novel.

    I’d definitely classify King Rat as a horror book, thanks in part to a few scenes of pretty intense violence and terror (although nothing more graphic than you would expect from Stephen King, for example). But the book incorporates some urban fantasy elements too, and the comparisons with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods are spot on. Miéville is very good at weaving these mythical and fantastic elements into 21st century London, and some of the best parts of the book are when Miéville hints at the larger mythology behind the narrative. The writing is much more polished than I expected from a first novel, and Miéville has a unique and interesting voice that was a pleasure to read. I thought the author showed a real knack for raising his game when the stakes were high, and two scenes in particular (the end of Part 4 and the second half of Part 6) were jaw-droppingly good. Finally, King Rat features a supremely cool villain, one of the best I have recently encountered. The big baddie is a terrifying meld of myth & Miéville’s imagination that you won’t soon forget.

    This was my first Miéville book, and I can’t wait to tackle his later stuff. I certainly had fun with this one. 3.5 stars, highly recommended.


  8. says:

    Here's the deal with King Rat: Neil Gaiman and China Mieville were sitting at a pub one cold 1998 evening, right? And China makes some wager with Neil, a wager that Neil ultimately loses. (Let's say China bets him he can't write a better comic book series than The Sandman.) So for losing, Neil has to write a book for China to sell under Mieville's name. Neil writes King Rat. It's got some typical Gaimanisms: a trip through a fantastical underworld two steps removed from the normal version of London, characters lifted from mythology and given a gritty present-day reality, and violent turns that are both threatening and strangely out-of-place. But Neil knows he needs to at least try to hide the fact that he's ghostwritten this one, so he makes the characters lackluster, the plot twists obvious, and the spelling- strangely- erratic. Gaiman fans should go read...well, anything by Gaiman. I've personally only read Looking For Jake by Mieville, a collection of his short stories which I very much enjoyed and highly recommend. This one, in my opinion, is totally skip-worthy.


  9. says:

    After reading this book, I:
    1. Will never see rats the same way again. I kinda want their superpower, including strong stomach.
    2. Will save money to visit London. Gosh darn it, Mieville, stop seducing me with your atmospheric description of London and what might lie beneath/in between the city. I acquiesce.
    3. Will try to reduce buying paperback editions since it actually hurts my hand to hold it, even though I am already using a book holder. E-books FTW! Save the environment!

    This is Mieville's first published novel and I did like it, an interesting retelling of the Pied Piper legend. Obviously I have some complaints, like when I got lost trying to figure out character's motivation, some horrible unexpected violence (this is probably his goriest novel), and his tendency of being purple with less poetic quality as in his other novels, which probably more verbose but so delicious to digest.

    Yikes, I am running out Mieville books to read. This Census-Taker is next.


  10. says:

    I tried to keep in mind when picking up King Rat that it was China Miéville's debut novel and the chances of it being on par or better than PSS weren't high. With that in mind, I wasn't too disappointed.

    Saul Garamond's come home to London after a camping excursion and finds the place quiet, empty of its usual domestic element. Instead of bothering about his father's silence, Saul succumbs to exhaustion and is awakened to a confusion of police officers, caution tape and a broken window. Now under suspicion for the murder of his father, Saul tries to unwrap the events of that morning. In between interrogations, we learn about Saul's past and his spotty relationship with his father--one of the marking characteristics of his suspicious arrival that has tipped the police in his direction.

    Before the police can come to a decisive conclusion, a mysterious intruder known only as King Rat whisks Saul away to the shadowy underground of London back alleys, rooftops and sewers. Among his arsenal is a secret for Saul: a royal heritage and magical inheritance into the shadow, survival, and subterfuge of rodentia.

    Saul, perhaps too quickly, adapts to his new rodent-like abilities with an ease as disturbing as some of the traits themselves. The scene where King Rat educates Saul on the finer delicacies of the ratty palate is particularly disgusting and if it didn't turn Saul's stomach, it sure did mine. This is one appetite Miéville seems to relish, revisiting the option time and time again throughout the novel. The other is the ability to somehow fall into the shadows, become a shadow, imperceptible to a world separated by half a dozen feet. If you can imagine a 182 pound man (Miéville seems to think this is a weight bearing more gravity than it actually does) taking to wall climbing (shimmying?) and roof scaling like a duck to water, then you can easily understand the unexplainable vocal trick passed down to Saul through some mysterious aqueduct of Brand New Rat Abilities which turns his voice into a darker, huskier and all-pervasive entity. I'm still not quite sure how this is accomplished, nor how Saul mastered this ability, but it seems to freak his friends out and makes for a good scare.

    After being kept in the dark about his role as Prince Rat in this new life architecture, Saul decides to go investigate life on his own. Running into a friend (Kay), he learns just how bad things have gotten since his prison break. Two officers assigned to watch his father's flat on the chance Saul returns to the scene of his supposed first crime are found dead. The police are determined to pin the blame on Saul again, but the nature of the crime--brutal, decisive, utterly destructive--doesn't fit with Inspector Crowley's understanding of Saul. There's something run afoul in London.

    Taking it upon himself to spread the word on Saul's capture and disappearance, his friend Fabian discovers a new, unremarkable character hanging around girl-interest Natasha's flat. With a flute in hand and an ear for music "Pete," as he has introduced himself as, adds his own tune to Natasha's Jungle music mixture.

    If it isn't clear by now what Miéville is cleverly attempting to pull off, King Rat clears the fog as he and two friends (Anansi and LopLop) sit Saul down and relate an ancient tale of revenge. Pete, you see, if you can put the pieces together here, is really the Pied Piper of Hamelin and King Rat is The One That Got Away. Now, ever determined to pay the Piper back for his emasculation, King Rat seeks revenge with the hope of regaining his kingdom and the loyalty of his subjects in this, Saul’s “fucking fable” (123).

    Halfway through the book, King Rat and his cohorts of world mythology lose steam. For a couple of chapters I worried the plot would unravel under the task Miéville set for himself, but my fears were unfounded. This lapse in confidence provided Saul the space he needed to flex his metaphorical wings (if only he was a bat) and rebuff King Rat with a committed collection of dialogue which, when combined, seems to add up to more than he's spoken in the entire text thus far. Getting on with his ratty self, Saul also reveals a bombshell: King Rat's wayward subjects are turning to Saul for leadership, an unthinkable event which kicks the now fearful leader into action. Frustrated with King Rat’s brooding, Saul also puts his gears to work on a solo mission that reveals the truth about his father and sets into motion a new, darker turn of events.

    Miéville has a gift for dialogue and with King Rat entertains a lasting relationship to sprawling cities with his attention to detail and marvelous construction. Under him, London streets undulate with hidden mysteries and a pervasive, gritty darkness seeping into the culture of city-dwellers and personal plotlines alike. Miéville’s cities have personalities, are just as much characters as his humans are. He reconstructs London from the inside out and builds a new landscape of the unseen, the dark underbellies beyond the façades of decorated building fronts. Miéville also deconstructs his protagonist and by the end of the novel (much like the later PSS) Saul has not just reclaimed his identity, he has found and molded it, shaped by the tumultuous forces of family and loyalty and emerges reborn and refreshed: a new Saul Garamond, neither the man he started out as, or the rat he thought he would become.

    I never noticed the writing in this novel in the way good writing makes the task look easy and polished. While some events in the novel weren’t thematically as seamless as I would have liked, Miéville manages to fool me into thinking they could be, if I just thought hard enough. Or it could be that my eyes sparkle for all things Miéville, but my recent dive into Looking For Jake was refreshing on the rabid fan front. The man isn’t a writing god--mistakes do happen--but it’s nice to know when he’s got it right, it’s some of the best I’ve ever read.

    If you like urban fantasy definitely pick this one up.