China Miéville, King Rat (Macmillan UK, 1998; Earthling Publications, 2005)
China Miéville writes fantasies that would do Clive Barker or Neil Gaiman proud. But no one will mistake his prose for anyone else's, as he has a style as unique as either of those two gents, who are among my favorite writers. King Rat, his first novel after years of writing short fiction, is both a fine urban fantasy and a well-crafted horror novel.
Keep in mind, that like Gaiman's Neverwhere, King Rat is set in a contemporary London. As there are numerous London references in the book, it helps quite a lot if you know just a bit of London geography and history. No, it won't spoil your enjoyment of King Rat not to have this cultural knowledge, but it will be enhanced if you do know. Now, I must admit Neverwhere suffered slightly from this 'problem', which is why I have both the BBC edition of Neverwhere which is in the Queen's English and the American hardcover, which is not, solely because the latter has flyleaves which show a full map of the London Underground!
Now, I am not inclined to give away, so I keep my comments on the novel itself brief. . . . Well, sort of brief. . . .
Something is growing all too restless in London's darkside, something marking its territory in destruction and blood. Something, possibly not completely human, has brutally murdered Saul's father, and left Saul to pay for the crime. Something that doesn't plan on being held responsible. But something else from the urban nightmare that is London in King Rat breaks into Saul's prison cell and leads him out into the world that it inhabits. Now just what King Rat is and why he has freed Saul from prison will no doubt most likely creep you out, as it should! Ever see the Mark Hamill voiced Joker character as depicted in Batman -- The Animated Series? King Rat's the same psychopathic sort of creep, with a fully developed taste for sadism. Now imagine that Batman -- The Animated Series carried not a Y7 (suitable for seven years and older as it only has 'fantasy violence') rating as it does, but an NC-17 (adults only and we mean it, so scram kids!) rating. That would be the King Rat character.
In the urban nightmare that exists behind London's ever so polite side, in sewers and slums and places best not thought of by those of us who like to sleep untroubled, Saul will learn what his true nature is -- at a great cost. If this sounds close in tone to Neverwhere, be advised that Miéville's style is a hell of a lot closer to what Barker does than it is to what Gaiman does. I truly love Neverwhere but nothing terribly bad happens to anyone in that novel that the reader should care about. Like Barker, China does bad things to those who care about. Like Barker's Weaveworld, I found King Rat to be very well-done, except for the nasty tendency by the author to be gross sometimes just for the sake of being gross. But Miéville does dark fantasies involving folks thrown into very bad situations, so I wasn't at all surprised!
Call it magic realism. (It is.) Call it an urban fantasy. (Also correct.) Call it dark fantasy if you like. (It is definitely that.) Or call it horror, as it most certainly is that as well. It is, in some senses, a nastier version of the London created by Gaiman in Neverwhere. And watch out for the rats -- both the four legged kind and those who might be human. What you get here is a very good read. Just don't blame me if you have nightmares of rats after you read King Rat! As Ramsey Campbell, an acknowledged master of British dark fantasy and horror, said, King Rat is 'a story so compelling you almost haven't time to notice how fine the writing is; a dark myth reinvented for our time and for London in particular with great wit, style, and imagination.'
But when you buy the 2005 King Rat hardcover, as published by Earthling Publications (a press I can best describe as an award-winning specialty press that publishes fine limited editions of dark fiction), you are buying more than a classic of modern literature. You are getting one of the best designed and printed books that you'll have the pleasure to own. Any reader of this publication should know by now that I lust, errr, covet, errr, really enjoy limited editions of books that I like re-reading from time to time. Upstairs in the Library are, among far too many to completely list here, the Hill House edition of Gaiman's American Gods, SoulWave's publication of both of James Stoddard's Evenmere works, The High House and The False House, Nightshade's delightful Kage Baker novella, The Empress of Mars, and Subterranean Press's editions of Charles de Lint's Seven Wild Sisters and Medicine Road. What they all have in common is that they are among the very best publications that you, my dear reader, are ever likely to encounter. To that list, add this novel. In King Rat, Paul Miller, who is the Editor/Publisher/Designer and whatever else is needs done at Earthling Publications, has indeed produced a work that should win awards as an example of how to get a book project right.
I was curious as to how Paul Miller came to publish King Rat, as China has now become a Major Name in the world of fantasy publishing since King Rat was originally published in paper an ever so brief seven years ago, so I asked him. Paul's answer was 'I wanted to work with China and produce a lavish edition of one of his novels, and in part because one of the Bas Lag novels was already done at that time (The Scar, Easton Press), I thought the wonderful King Rat would be the perfect standalone novel to work with. I was thrilled that China was keen on the idea, and I'm grateful that both Clive Barker (who wrote an introduction) and Richard Kirk (who supplied 16 pieces of art) agreed to be a part of the project too.'
The copy sent for review was one of four hundred numbered copies, signed by Miéville, bound in bonded leather and slipcased, which is retailing for a very reasonable price of eighty-five dollars. Yes, reasonable. The slipcase -- one of the more rugged ones I've encountered -- is unadorned, but the book has China's signature on the cover and the words China Miéville KING RAT Earthling (the latter boxed) on the spine. Simple and elegant. When you get your copy, do stroke the leather -- it's a very sensual feel! It also looks very cool. But it gets even better when you open the book up, as there's an introduction by Clive Barker which is worth savoring. And it's worth stressing that Kirk's illustrations are the perfect counterpoint to Miéville's text, as both combine to create one of the best experiences I've had in reading a novel in quite some time.