Marius dos Hellespont is a scoundrel of the worst sort: he’s an opportunistic liar, an occasional con-man, but maybe worst of all, he often makes a living as a “corpse-rat,” stealing valuables from soldiers’ dead bodies after recent battles. It’s grim (and highly illegal) work, but it’s been making Marius enough money to feed himself and even take on an apprentice. Everything changes when, one day after a major battle, he comes upon the corpse of an actual king and tries to steal the crown.
When a dead soldier mistakes Marius for a real king, the corpse-rat finds himself transported to the realm of the dead, because just like living people, the dead need a king too, and the position happens to be vacant. It quickly becomes clear that Marius is about as far removed from actual royalty as possible, so the dead make him an offer he can’t refuse: he must go back to the land of the living to find an actual, real king for the dead. If not, his life will be forfeit.
So begins The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby, a darkly funny, often absurd fantasy novel that follows the adventures of the anti-hero Marius as he tries to escape the horrible task that’s been forced upon him. You didn’t think he’d try to hold his end of the bargain with the dead, did you? No, Marius tries to run as far away as possible to get away from the dead, especially his (recently deceased) former apprentice Gerd, who has his own special reasons to hate his former employer.
In the course of the story, Marius visits many of his former haunts and some old acquaintances (who aren’t all happy to see him, of course), but ultimately the only really well-defined character in the novel is Marius himself. Most of the fantasy world remains on the vague side as well. The Corpse-Rat King is a book you’ll want to read for the humor, the absurdity of the story, and maybe most importantly, Lee Battersby’s excellent, frequently funny prose. Take, for example, this random paragraph describing Marius’ encounter with an old man during his travels:
Marius was no great judge of age, but something that old should either be buried or a tree. Marius had once spent a torturous month impersonating the chief eunuch to the Caliphate of Taran’s second best harem, in a fruitless attempt to discover the location of the Caliphate’s second best buried treasure. In Taran they bred a special type of dog whose face, if it could be described as such, was nothing more than a mass of folds and wrinkles. The more wrinkles the dog possessed, the more highly it was prized. Marius had seen dogs that resembled mobile scrotums, pressed to the bosoms of cooing concubines as if the most precious possession on Earth, while his own scrotum sat alone, underappreciated and never once held to the bosom of anybody. But even the most scrotal of puppies would retreat to the nearest concubine’s cleavage in defeat when faced with the almost supernatural collection of wrinkles that stared at Marius now. The driver of the cart looked like a relief map of the Broken Lands after a major land battle had taken place. He crouched in his seat like a blind man’s drawing of a spider, a straw hat that looked like it might be hereditary crammed on his head; arms and legs like knotted string poking out of a vague assemblage of clothing as if they’d been leant against them and forgotten. He stared at Marius, and Marius has the uneasy feeling that the old man had died of fright, and someone had better tell him before he forgot and drove off. He slowly raises a hand, and bent his fingers in a wave.
The Corpse-Rat King is full to the brim of these kinds of beautifully written and funny asides. Never mind that the cart driver is so unimportant that he doesn’t even really qualify as a side-character, and that we learn next to nothing more about the Caliphate of Taran and Marius’ adventures there. All of it borders on the unnecessary, but it’s so much fun to read that, depending on how much depth you want in your fantasy, you may not mind reading pages and pages of it. The entire novel is one long, crazy madcap adventure in which the foul-mouthed, selfish Marius does what he’s best at—stealing, lying, cheating at cards, basically being a rogue who takes advantage of everything and everyone—all while reluctantly completing the macabre quest set upon him.
In the end, as much fun as I had with The Corpse-Rat King, it fell somewhat flat for me because, despite all the funny situations and grin-inducing dialogues and sheer absurdity, there just isn’t much to it. If anything, it feels like an idea Terry Pratchett might have used in one of his Discworld novels, but that author would have turned this entire concept into a few chapters’ worth of side-plot and made it part of a more substantial novel. To satisfy completely, The Corpse-Rat King would have needed more interesting characters, a more well-defined setting and a plot that’s more than the extension of an absurd joke.
Then again, it’s hard to deny that I somehow kept reading and laughed more than a few times. The Corpse-Rat King really is a fun story to read, so if you don’t mind a book that, despite its dark premise and frequent gallows humor, is on the light side when it comes to actual substance, it may be a great choice for you. Given that this is Lee Battersby’s first novel, I’m definitely intrigued enough to read more by him in the future.