Riddle me this, readers: what sees you when you’re sleeping? What knows when you’re awake? What’s never more than six feet away, and sometimes carries plague?
That’s right! I’m talking about rats. Dirty rotten rodents in the eyes of most folks. But not Terence Blacker’s, apparently. His new novel promises to do for these creeping creatures what Watership Down did for rabbit warrens the world over… or else, that’s what the publicity suggests. I’d like to suggest an alternative, because to me, The Twyning read more like Redwall with rats. Or rather Redwall with more rats.
There are, however, humans in The Twyning too. Caz and Dogboy are forgotten orphans (complete with horrible histories) who live together in a tip. To pay for the pies they need to stay alive, the caregiver of the pair does odd jobs for an affable rat-catcher, as well as a superior scientist who has made the beasts of the underworld his life’s work. Whilst still peripheral, Dogboy’s Dickensian adventures—in an ageless English setting, no less—intersect with our actual protagonist’s narrative in a more meaningful way, I dare say, than the distractions that come courtesy of Caz.
If not one or the other, then, who is our hero?
Well… it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to Efren, of the kingdom beneath our feet:
A young apprentice whose past was a mystery, whose future was uncertain but whose present was always trouble. [Efren] was too undisciplined to be a taster, too small to be a warrior, too restless to work in the dustier Courts of History, Translation, Strategy or Prophecy. He was something of an outsider even among the other rats of his age.
It was said that his father had escaped from a prison in the world above. Certainly the dash of white between his ears, like the crest of a bird, suggested that some rogue blood, a hint of fragility, ran through his veins.
Yet there was nothing fearful or weak about this apprentice. He had the oddity of a fragile but none of its dependence on other rats.
Never mind the foolish humans: Efren is this novel’s real draw. He’s a courageous little rodent who dares to doubt the doublethink of his fearless new leader. Having essentially seized control of the kingdom, Jeniel immediately implements a rather Orwellian regime change, beginning with the word:
Certain words had entered everyday discussions, having first been heard in the speeches of Queen Jeniel. When spoken by the Queen, they had seemed casual. Then those who were close to her at court began to use them. After a while they had become a useful way of displaying loyalty to the new regime, of showing that you were acceptable in the new kingdom.
‘Unvigilant’, ‘security’, ‘emergency’, ‘modern’, ‘safety from fear’, ‘re-education’, ‘race loyalty’: I knew what these phrases meant—or rather what they should mean. Now, though, I saw they had another meaning. They were a secret code among those who belonged at court.
Those who used them possessed race loyalty.
Those who did not were being unvigilant.
The few who were foolish enough to ask questions were almost certainly in urgent need of re-education.
Thus, the court considers Efren a terrorist, and disowns him for his disobedience. Freed in this fashion from his former responsibilities, he escapes to the world above, to find true love in the form of a fragile—a pet rat, per The Twyning’s terminology. But before the troubled couple can consecrate their relationship, Malaika—who has taken up with Caz, as it happens—Malaika alerts Efren to the greatest threat the kingdom has ever faced: a city-wide rat hunt, masterminded by Dogboy’s ambitious employers.
With this knowledge comes a choice: before it’s too late for all involved, the outsider Efren must decide where his loyalties lie. Should he save the kingdom, corrupt as it has become? Or let his friends perish alongside his enemies?
The Twyning rattles along these exciting lines for perhaps its first half, and there are several such moments in the final section as well. Sadly, the bloated middle of Blacker’s book—that part of the entire which relies on the humans instead of Efren—is substantially less successful. One chance meeting follows another, and another, until what credibility the author has earned is soon spent; The Twyning begins to seem contrived, and I fear this feeling persists even after the intermediate act.
Furthermore, a few story beats feel forced, several characters fall flat, and Blacker’s decision to alternate between the past and the present tense serves no particular purpose. Meanwhile, the horrendous sense of hysteria so powerfully evoked through the opening is disappointingly defused; it is all but abandoned, in fact, in favour of a far less impactful narrative.
Given all this, it’s safe to say mistakes were made. But you know what? I still had a fine time with The Twyning. Indeed, Blacker succeeds more often than not. His worldbuilding is brilliant; his prose is mostly potent; his set-pieces are tortuously tense; and though it revolves around one of the animal kingdom’s least appealing species, on the whole his story is surprisingly charming. Some of the concepts underpinning it are simply superb, not least the titular twyning—a mistake of nature, sustained as a symbol:
Their tails had become inextricably entangled. As they had grown, the knot of living tissue that was at their centre melded and fused together so that, with adulthood, each of them was less an individual rat than a limb on a greater shared body, a spoke on a wheel of flesh.
“The Twyning expresses life’s mystery. Unable to move in any one direction except at an awkward, complicated shuffle, it has its own kind of strength, for nothing terrifies a human more than the sight of rats, helpless, bound together, yet powerful.
So. Will The Twyning single-handedly render rats as attractive as rabbits? I think not, no… though the animals Richard Adams leveraged in his classic narrative certainly had something of a head start in that regard. These rodents simply can’t compete. But put aside cuteness, and you’ll find theirs is yet a darn charming yarn.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Strange Horizons, The Speculative Scotsman and Tor.com. On rare occasions he’s been known to tweet about books, too.