King Rat by China Mieville

I’ve enthused wildly over his second and third novels (Perdido Street Station and The Scar) here, and finally got around to his first. The others are set in SF-fantasy worlds, while this one is in London, but hardly the London we know. Our protagonist comes home to find himself a suspect for the murder of his father, and is busted out of jail by a more or less human-looking being who claims to be the king of the rats, and who tells him he is half rat himself. The London we see is underneath and above the London we know, and in its interstitial spaces. It’s powerfully depicted – the prose here isn’t much less wonderful than in the two next two novels, atmospheric and compelling – and pretty convincing for a fantasy view, but he does rather over-valourise drum & bass, bizarrely. I guess to him it represents another kind of dark alternate world, a dangerous and exciting underbelly; I’m a fan of the music myself, but I didn’t feel this element of the novel quite carried the charge he thought it did; and if your familiarity is more Roni Size than Ed Rush, this will be even more true.

But the real problem is the story. It has several good set-pieces, including the climax, but unfortunately the whole thing is rather based on the hoary old Pied Piper story. Mieville does a good job of turning this Piper into something scary, but he is still a one-trick pony, and a fundamentally rather silly figure, so Mieville is always swimming against the tide here. He also grafts a pretty absurd political message onto the otherwise excellent aftermath of the big finale.

I wholeheartedly recommend his next couple, but don’t expect anything like as much from this one. I liked it, but if I’d read this first I might not have come back for more.