Thursday, August 8, 2013
The Corpse-Rat King
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Comfortably expansive (410 pages)
Publication: August 28, 2012 from Angry Robot
Premise: Marius don Hellespont has spent years robbing corpses for money and little treasures, but taking on Gerd as an apprentice just gets both of them into trouble. When Gerd is killed over the King of Scorby's corpse, Marius is left holding the crown and pulled into the underworld, where the dead want him to be their king. They are furious to learn that he is an imposter, but they allow him to leave on one condition: that he return and bring them a real king.
Warnings: gore in all its manifold expressions, implied prostitution of underage girls, offscreen torture
Recommendation: If you're looking for something gritty and odd and running over with black comedy, this might be your cup of tea-- if you're at all squeamish, especially about rotting flesh, do steer clear.
Why this one is quirky and bizarre:
Marius is unusual even among antiheroes because he's driven by cowardice and apathy rather than the more usual raw ambition or need for revenge. Battersby makes no effort to present him as menacing or glamorous and even admirable, but he somehow ends up coming across as a somewhat sympathetic character despite that. It's an unusual choice, but a good one: the quest to find a king to drag into the underworld would be nearly impossible even for a dedicated hero, and Marius's first impulse is to flee to the far corners of the earth where he can't be chased by corpses. He's callous and indifferent to suffering: he talked Gerd into coming with him when the man was happy helping his grandmother shovel pig manure, and then let him die so that the nearby soldiers wouldn't find and kill Marius as well. We see little flashes of guilt and self-awareness when he finds himself despising people for taking advantage of the poor or gullible and then remembers all the times that he's done the same thing without so much as a second thought, but for the most part he remains firmly himself: intelligent enough to work his way out of most scrapes and arrogant enough to get into several more along the way. It works because he's so open about what he's doing: Marius has very few self-delusions besides the idea that he wants to settle down happily in the countryside, and he makes no apologies for what he is.
That blunt take-it-or-leave-it attitude threads through nearly every descriptive passage. Sometimes the narrative contents itself with gems like "Borgho City had grown so big that truth and memory were only two of its satellites," and sometimes Marius makes bizarrely elaborate comparisons about dogs that look like scrotums. The way Marius sees the world rarely overlaps with the way anyone else would describe it, and that makes each chapter engaging. The details he sees are also disgustingly vivid in a way most fantasy novels don't want to touch-- you'll hear about nasty odors elsewhere, but Marius is submerged in a river of excrement and feels things plopping on his face. Marius's language is richly detailed, all the more so when he's describing the withered texture of his own flesh, which has been cursed to look dead by the corpses who sent him back to the living world. He hates that appearance as a symbol of his entrapment, but he was never handsome, so he's happy to use his face to scare people out of money or convince them that he's a demon. Everything is a weapon in his arsenal of tricks, no matter how much he happens to dislike it, and that versatility does more to make him memorable than anything else.
Even with such creativity, he's not infallible; every time one of his schemes starts to work, he experiences layered setbacks. He's too smart and curious for his own good in a way that undercuts whatever he's actually trying to do, and it tends to take outside presences to stabilize his contorted thinking into something workable. Being keenly aware of everyone else's stupidity ends up handicapping him: he assumes that people will act in the patterns he's observed and forgets over and over again that he can be observed in turn. Quite a few trickster/rogue-protagonist novels forget to do this and feel shallow as a result, since watching someone just succeed over and over again doesn't tend to carry much dramatic tension-- when Marius does get something to work, it tends to feel like he's earned it. He creates success in slivers and carries just enough regret for his misdeeds that it's hard not to root for him at least a little and share in his disappointment that one more thing in the worst month of his life has failed to go in any direction that even resembles right. More on the whole-book pacing below, but most of the individual segments (minus the ship he attempts to use to escape) move at a comfortably brisk pace and rely on a good mixture of luck, trickery, and the universe just not liking Marius very much.
The red pen:
Unfortunately, the parts of the book that don't revolve around Marius being a jerk and alternately succeeding and being slapped around by fate don't always work. The overarching problem here is probably the pacing. Marius has some great encounters, including a gambling den sequence that plays tropes straight for just long enough to make it more fun when they're subverted and an underwater voyage through a treasure ship (probably my favorite part of the whole book). They just don't feel terribly connected by anything other than coincidence: Marius will make rare decisions like "start running" or "I suppose I'll walk this way," but he seems to drift from encounter to encounter in a way that feels almost more like a series of roleplaying sessions than a coherent plot. It can be hard to pin down why some scattered-style plots and others don't, but the ones that do (the middle third of Ready Player One is great for this) work because the main character's emotional arc is guiding his or her restless wanderings in a way that later works with the plot instead of against it. Marius doesn't quite learn nothing in his attempt to avoid accomplishing his task, but he comes close, and that leaves the plot lacking in purpose and momentum.
That aimless feeling hits the middle of the book particularly hard: the idea of a corpse-robber being trapped into helping the dead isn't without a certain poetry as hooks go, and the final sequence has some great action, but in between it's much too easy to set the book down for days or hours. It's hard to guess what will happen on the next page, let along the next chapter, but that doesn't matter because it's also hard to care. Characters come and go without rhyme or reason, signs and portents flare up with high drama but no follow-up, and the hints of emotional connection that Marius starts to form tend to snap after a few chapters at best. There are a few small character sets over time and Gerd is more present than you'd expect for a dead man, but the transitions from one setting and situation to the next tend to be choppy and disjointed. Having a smooth plan disrupted by bad luck can work, and running away with purpose can be great in the right hands (give Terry Pratchett's Rincewind a try if you're interested), but running away and then rambling sideways before maybe ambling back just isn't terribly coherent or gripping.
After all the wandering, matters fly together in a partially satisfying way. Marius finds several solutions he couldn't have anticipated before hitting on something that works, and even the failed attempts unobtrusively fill in interesting bits of history. His emotional arc works far less well, since it consists of learning nothing for large tracts of the book and having a hurried flirtation with regrets and doing the right thing near the end in a way that feels rushed in rather than intrinsic to his character. There's an attempt to humanize him via his love interest, Keth, who is (of course) a reformed prostitute who loves him even though he's ugly. It's nothing new or original, and Marius spends way too much time realizing that she always loved him and then kicking himself in between maudlin bits of resolution to move out to the country and buy her a cottage with a cat on the windowsill. Keth could have been great, and she has one acid-edged speech about how she owns the room she lives in and has worked for more freedom than most women in the city ever consider, but Marius just asks how much of her money she earned on her back and that's the last we see of her. She's gentle and sweet and righteously angry: in short, the perfect love from afar for Marius to pine over in dark moments without managing to feel like a real person or a natural part of his thoughts. He's lovelorn, but it makes him irritating instead of humanizing him.
The verdict: The Corpse-Rat King is just the right kind of strange and not infrequently laugh-out-loud funny: Battersby knows how to turn a phrase and has a gift for black comedy. Odds are good that I'll read whatever he's putting out in a few years if it's from a different series, but I wanted to like this one much more than I actually did.
Prospects: This is the first book of two (and perhaps a series eventually). The second book, The Marching Dead, came out this March.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David has a similarly obnoxious protagonist getting into adventures against his will, even stealing a destiny just because he's annoyed, but the vein of humor may run a bit less black.