King Rat by China Miéville
Published by Macmillan on 2000-10-06
Something is stirring in London's dark, stamping out its territory in brickdust and blood. Something has murdered Saul Garamond's father, and left Saul to pay for the crime.But a shadow from the urban waste breaks into Saul's prison cell and leads him to freedom. A shadow called King Rat, who reveals Saul's royal heritage, a heritage that opens a new world to Saul, the world below London's streets--a heritage that also drags Saul into King Rat's plan for revenge against his ancient enemy,. With drum 'n' bass pounding the backstreets, Saul must confront the forces that would use him, the forces that would destroy him, and the forces that shape his own bizarre identity.
King Rat is festering with atmosphere and drowns you in a cacophony of Jungle Bass and Drum. It takes you to London’s underside, it’s stinking bowels, and gives life to the world below. It does all this in a very good way. I swear. King Rat is my first taste of Mieville and I’m still not sure if it was the best place for me to start, but it certainly isn’t a bad place to start. This is his debut novel and does not seem to be as widely read or recommended. I have also heard that it is a bit different from the rest of his novels. Since I obviously have not read the others, I can’t comment on that myself. But I can share what I thought of King Rat.
The story is intriguing. Our protagonist, Saul, wakes up to find himself in the middle of a nightmare; One that he is being blamed for. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is about to find himself as a central figure in a war he knows nothing about within a world previously unknown to him. He is still in London, but now he sees the previously unseen. And nothing, from the moment he wakes up, can ever make his world go back to the way it was.
My largest comment is that I love his atmospheric descriptions. You could just feel the malodorous sludge coagulating and dripping, see the colors and wonders (and horrors) of the city of London, and most importantly, you could hear and feel and practically live the rhythms of the Jungle Bass and Drum music that is prominently featured in the story. Within all of this (and keep in mind, his descriptions work way better than my feeble attempts), I could see brilliance that I am sure is carried over to his other works. In these descriptions, I could easily understand the fan base he has acquired.
Now, before anything else, I want to be clear that for a first novel, this really is a great debut. However, I also felt at times some of his scenes drug on for entirely too long. There is a bike ride that is so detailed I think it would put my GPS turn-by-turn directions to shame for being so simple and minimalistic. I think every turn and street name needed was in the book in addition to what felt like an inordinate number of landmarks along the way. It was not a huge deal, but it did pull me out of the story a bit, it seemed to go beyond what was a descriptive setting to an info dump of how to get from point X to point Y in London and everything you might see in between.
I also found the accent/dialogue from one of the characters (Anansi) a bit grating and kind of hard to read. I think if I was familiar with the accent he was trying to get across, it would have flowed much better, but since I wasn’t it just read very awkward. Luckily, he did not have much to say. And sometimes, it was short, and I didn’t have a problem. But if he had a paragraph worth of dialogue, chances are, I had to slow down my reading, and would get pulled out a bit to wonder what he was really supposed to sound like versus my awkward attempt at it. But, minor complaint. Really.
So, while I didn’t find this book without faults (at least for me as a reader), it was certainly still a positive reading experience. If your in the mood to explore the world below London (and have already read Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman), then definitely give this one try. Especially if you enjoy an atmospheric, descriptive book.