A Promising Failure: The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby

Angry Robot Books have a habit of putting out books with interesting concepts. Occasionally weird and wacky — sometimes hard to categorise — but as a rule, interesting concepts.

The Corpse-Rat King has an interesting concept. Marius, a thief, gambler, and sometime looter, is in the middle of… liberating… a few valuable items from the bodies left behind after a battle when he comes across the corpse of a king. Since he’s no better than he should be, our lad Marius nicks his crown and hides in a pile of dead bodies. Not, as it happens, the smartest thing he ever did: there’s a whole kingdom of the dead dwelling under the earth, and it turns out they want a king. Dragged down to them by mistake, Marius proceeds to inform them he’s neither dead nor a king. So he gets saddled with the job of finding a real dead king, and bringing him to the kingdom of the dead — on pain of pain, for all eternity.

That’s the point at which Marius starts running. He’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to get away from the dead. Unfortunately for him, the dead are everywhere. And he doesn’t exactly look alive anymore himself.

And unfortunately for us, a boatload of fleeing doesn’t add up to a novel’s worth of coherent narrative. The Corpse-Rat King is a series of disconnected encounters — many of them interesting and well-written in and of themselves — with no real unifying thread linking the disparate events. Characters, situations, and locations are introduced, incidents occur — or expected incidents fail to occur, on one or two occasions — but very few of them have any lasting significance. Marius either escapes by the skin of his teeth or is run out of town on the local equivalent of a rail. But until the very end, there is little continuity between these incidents: little character development, little of that nebulous thing called plot that one can’t always define but knows when one sees, no sense that an overall thematic coherence is at play. Marius moves through the world in a singular bubble and possesses no significant relationships with any other person. When he does finally decide that, actually, he’d probably really better try to complete the job the dead have landed him with, it seems to arise more from the fact that Marius has run out of other things to do, than from any sense of urgency or personal stake in getting it done on Marius’ part.

Marius himself has little emotional investment in anything. Consequently, the reader has little reason to emotionally invest: there’s no there there, a gapingly obvious chasm papered thinly over by a sarcastic narrative voice and a string of random encounters that the man behind the curtain has rolled up to distract the eye from the fact that, in terms of emotional and thematic effect, there’s barely enough meat here to make a short-story sandwich. As one fellow-reviewer put it, there’s rather an absence of forest here among all the distracting trees.

Apologies for the mixed metaphors.

Battersby does show flashes of promise as a novelist. The prose is perfectly competent, as one might expect from an award-winning short-story writer. The separate incidents (the random encounters, the trees, of my tangled metaphor), taken individually, demonstrate inventiveness and a quirky sense of humour. One underwater adventure involving Marius, the animate skeleton of Mad King Nandus, and his equally skeletal horse, which is eventually terminated by an irritated shark, is laugh-out-loud funny: it’s a pity it doesn’t belong to a less disjointed book. And Marius’s anthropic uncertainty, the continuing “am-I-dead-or-aren’t-I” wondering that goes along with his altered body, is an interesting touch. Though I expected the reveal to come rather earlier than five pages from the end.

All things considered, The Corpse-Rat King doesn’t live up to the promise of its title or its concept. Here’s hoping that Battersby comes by a bit more meat on his next time out, because while to my mind, The Corpse-Rat King may be a failure as a novel—

—As failures go, it’s a promising one.

Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College Dublin. Find her @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.


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