A strong first novel from China Mieville, and a brutal, pacey thriller for fans of weird fiction and city-based fantasy (I avoid the term ‘urban fantasy’ because of its association with oversexed vampires). Saul Garamond is about to be conveniently accused of murdering his father when King Rat springs him from jail, using the surreal abilities of a rat. King Rat isn’t a literal rat – he appears as a tall, skinny human in a dark coat, reeking with the stench of the sewers. But he can scale walls and squeeze through impossibly narrow spaces; he’s fast, strong and can avoid being seen if he wants to. These are all skills Saul develops because, as King Rat reveals, he’s half rat and half human, as well as the Prince of rats. King Rat needs Saul to help him defeat the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the legendary hero who here becomes a horror-story villain with the power to charm humans and creatures with his flute. The King lost the trust of his subjects 700 years ago when the Piper led the rats to a mass suicide, and by killing the Piper he hopes to win back their respect and reclaim his kingdom.
He and Saul retreat to the relative safety of the London sewers, while in the city above the murder of Saul’s father is followed by far more horrific slaughters. Mieville complements his plot with a focus on Jungle music – its heavy, entrancing drum and bass makes the ideal soundtrack for a London underground and the threat of an uncatchable killer, but also the music in which the Piper can embed his captivating tunes.
In this novel you can spot quite easily the roots of The City and the City (2009) – the idea of one city hidden within another, existing in the exact same space, but visible only to those with the right perspective. It also plays with the idea of invisibility achieved not so much through the inability to be seen as the reflexive refusal of others to see you. While Saul can hide himself in the shadows if he likes, he can also walk the streets and be ignored – a consequence of his dirty, bedraggled appearance and his stench.
King Rat isn’t as impressive in ideas or scope as Mieville’s later works, Perdido Street Station (2000) or The Scar (2002), but the simpler story is able to move at a rapid pace, perfectly balancing the violent thriller plot with the dark world Saul finds himself in, and the uneasy relationship with the manipulative King Rat.