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Review: China Miéville's King Rat

reading, books
This was Miéville's first novel, and it - like Un Lun Dun and more recently Kraken - is set in London, albeit an alternate London (and a different alt!London to either of those two novels!).  Clearly, the man loves his city, and he writes about it well; each time, it's got a slightly different feel, and King Rat feels like a really science-fictional London.  The opening of the story is a train journey into London by the main protagonist, and honestly, you could barely guess the setting from the description; as far as Miéville is concerned, we're living in the future - and he's just trying to get us used to it.

The whole tone of the novel is, rather like Perdido Street Station, not the most accessible tome; and, like Iron Council, is very political.  Whilst these are indeed typical hallmarks of Miéville, he doesn't really seem to have quite found his footing in either of them just yet; the politics is included very haphazardly, and the accessibility - the style, vocabulary, and so on - don't really come through clearly.  However, one element that really isn't so strong in other novels of Miéville's is the music; this novel is infused with drum 'n' bass, and the sound - and feel - of it comes across really clearly.  The unified sonic element really does a lot to wipe out the (slight!) shortcomings of the debut novel's style.

The characters really do reflect those in Kraken, and even in Un Lun Dun. Saviours and guides thrust into another world, they have to adapt and learn fast in order to survive; this is especially true in King Rat, as the villain of the novel - somewhat like Goss & Subby of Kraken in the casual brutality, but also like other villains in the manipulative cruelness - is revealed; although to say 'the villain' is somewhat misleading, as you could easily say there were more than one villains.  The characters are like those in Kraken, again, although D. I. Crowley may well be the protozoic form of Inspector Borlú of The City and The City; that is, the characters are occupying similar molds, including those thrust into the alt!London as a consequence of the entry to that world of Saul, our main character, who happens to be incredibly similar to Billy Harrow.

The plot is a welter of different things; here, Miéville does make King Rat its own novel, and in my mind it avoided just being in the shadow of Kraken because of the plot.  A murder investigation, in part, and in part a simple exploration of what it is to be - what it is to be rat, spider, bird, human, drum'n'bass DJ, artist, political activist, police man, and more - as well as an exploration of London, the plot hangs together like nothing else, twists and turns actually utterly blindsiding the reader, shock revelations, and a little air of whimsy about the whole thing as the Pied Piper of Hamelin returns for a rematch with the rats.  Really well handled, Miéville showed in his debut that he was able to do things others only tried, and to do them well.

All in all this is one of the most impressive books I've read recently, and possibly a stronger novel than some of his later work - I'm not a great fan of The Scar, and Kraken and Un Lun Dun are in some ways just imitations of the initial awesomeness of King Rat, wonderful though they are.  I'd strongly recommend this novel to everyone!


(I've now read all of Miéville's work to date, so until he brings out a new book - in May 2011, according to rumour - that's all the Miéville-reviewing done, if you don't like the man's work.  Although, I have to say, if you fall into that camp... what kind of reader are you???)

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Daniel Franklin

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