You could argue that the sewer-trolling, wall-shimmying, supernaturally powered protagonist of China Mieville’s King Rat is not really a superhero. He doesn’t wear a crazy costume, he doesn’t really fight crime, and since he counts garbage-eating as one of his powers, maybe there’s good reason to distance him from the likes of Superman and Spider-Man. Still, King Rat, with its cast of supernaturally powered characters and clashes, reads like a fugitive from the comics page, like something escaped from the Vertigo roster back in the 90′s and re-captured in prose.
Everything that makes a good graphic novel is here, except, of course, the pictures. There’s a moody protagonist, a captivating setting in the tarnished streets of London and the gritty clubs of the early 2000′s Drum-And-Bass music scene. There’s also a cast of mysterious, quirkily magical supporting characters, and a nasty piece of work with a magic flute and supernatural strength for the villain. Take all this and Swirl in some hip cynicism, a share of moral ambiguity, and even a healthy dose of counter-culture earnestness, and all that’s missing is a Dave McKean cover and a foreword by Alan Moore.
King rat tells the tale of Saul Garamond, a young, disillusioned Londoner who finds himself on the run after the mysterious murder of his father. In his flight from the law Saul becomes entangled with a mysterious and exotically powered vagabond who claims to be the King of Rats. Saul quickly finds himself immersed in a world of threadbare gods and supernatural forces, a world which slowly draws him away from the life he once knew.
As Saul traverses London’s underbelly with the eponymous monarch, he begins to learn the Rat King’s ways, and gradually gains the superhuman survival skills of the rodents that are The King’s subjects. Granted, the rat is probably pretty low on anyone’s list of animal totems, but rat powers still entail some pretty cool things. Things like enhanced agility, stealth, wall-climbing, enhanced strength and resilience, and the supremely useful, if distasteful, ability to consume and digest any type of food one finds, regardless of its state of decay
Of course, with great power comes great plot complications, and the King Reveals that the ancient enemy of his kind, the enigmatic and powerful Piper has come to London to snuff out the king and enslave his furry subjects. As Saul learns disturbing things about his own heritage, he learns he must face the piper as well. But the piper has found a new weapon by corrupting the underground music Saul loved so much in his quickly fading human life. Even allied with the King of Birds, The King of Spiders, and the few human friends Saul still has, the fight may be one that none of them can survive.
Rendered in prose form and heavily influenced by ancient folklore and modern horror fiction, King Rat still faithfully ticks off all the story points of a textbook superhero adventure. There’s the origin, the gradual and wondrous revelation of powers, the initiation into a larger world of super powered beings, the tragedy that hardens the hero’s resolve, all climaxing with the inevitable confrontation with an antithetical archenemy, and the assumption of an alternate identity.
This comic book sensibility really shines through in the action sequences, where magical icons pummel each other with mystical strength in city sewers or pit power versus power on rooftops and in back-alleys. The brawls and the pursuits are rendered in prose that pops off the page like a Neal Adams panel breakdown. King Rat‘s premise may give the reader small press and alternative comics flashbacks, but the action is pure mighty Marvel melodrama.
Fans might bristle at the thought that author Mieville, a pioneer of the “urban fantasy” movement and one of the most accomplished voices of the steampunk genre, once wrote a mere superhero novel. Still, the proof is right there on King Rat‘s pages. Both criticized and applauded for the class consciousness and political fervor of his later novels like Perdido Street Station, and Iron Council, Mieville can be a divisive figure in SF circles.Contentious or not, King Rat‘s combination of superpowers, hip cynicism, and its fascination with the shadowy underbelly of London slides nicely alongside the works of fellow Brits Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman. Readers turned off by Mieville’s baroquely detailed, socialist fantasy epics may very well find King Rat a different animal altogether, a novel more concerned with speeding along a thrilling, weird adventure tale than preaching any political agenda. King Rat is not a polemic, but a wild ride filled with rollicking superpowered brawls and, thrilling splash-page set pieces.
King Rat is not as accomplished or audacious as Mieville’s later works. Mieville’s paens to the unifying power of Drum-And-Bass music sometimes grow tiresome, frequently over-reaching in their insistent hipness. The “power of dance music” themes in the novel too often ring with the embarrassing, wide-eyed earnestness of a college freshman after his first rave. Still, that sensibility is mirrored by counterpointing undercurrents of gritty urban realism and graphic supernatural violence, and, at times, Mieville’s parallels between the pulse of the dance floor and the heartbeat of a city and it souls are as energizing as they are annoying. King Rat, beneath its hip, dark fantasy trappings still hums with all the wildly powered, outsized vivacity of a really good comic, making it one of the best evocations of the superhero in prose currently on bookstore shelves.