The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby
We need to set out on this journey of discovery with a short discussion on how to define a “comic novel”. Historically speaking, it could be judged by criteria of blandness, i.e. that it all turns out well for the good and the bad get their just deserts. This is fiction as seen by the Miss Prisms of this world (as in The Importance of Being Earnest) which, as Cecily Cardew observes, is not the fairest way for things to turn out. The reason? Because it fails to answer the question actually posed for who’s to say how the goodness or badness of the protagonists is to be judged. For example, we might think Malvolio in Twelfth Night gets his just deserts, but he’s rather more narcissistic than bad, an arrogant hypocrite who deserves to be taken down a peg or two. So this makes this Shakespearean humour more as defined by Plato who thought comedy lay in people’s failure to understand themselves and their roles in society. Together with Socrates and Aristotle, he explored the idea that there’s something ugly, if not hateful, about those who demonstrate ignorance of themselves. This does not, of itself, make the characters bad but it can make the humour cruel by exposing their weaknesses. Yet, the fact we may see people’s behaviour and beliefs as delusional and ludicrous does not prevent things from turning out well for them. Indeed, if they learn the extent of their errors and make efforts to reform, they can avoid the bad outcomes. Authors need not be heavy-handed moralists with an agenda to punish all who transgress social boundaries. In the midst of amusement at the expense of these characters, the authors can be asking the reader to think about the social themes woven into the narrative. Indeed, it’s often the case that by framing a novel as an apparent comedy, we can be seduced into thinking constructively about taboo issues — an inherently good outcome.
Which slightly heavy-weight discussion brings me to The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2012) and our first meeting with Marius dos Hellespont and Gerd, his sidekick. Since they live in a time of war, they turn their hands to mining the battlefield dead for their cash and personal valuables. This would be a relatively safe and highly remunerative business opportunity if Gerd had grown to be more than the village idiot who was seduced from the care of his grandmother by the smooth-talking Marius. But, in sidekick terms, he’s as smart as bait. In this case, he attracts the attention of soldiers searching for the body of the King. They don’t take kindly to “graverobbers” and despatch poor Gerd. Although this is a short-term distraction and allows Marius to evade capture, he’s them forcibly invited to join the dead under the battlefield. They’re upset at the prospect of being without a King so, in military terms, task Marius to recruit a King for them. They make the usual threats to encourage him to take the task seriously, even returning Gerd as a factotum.
Except, of course, once he’s released back into the world, his mission is to get as far away from the dead as possible, and that includes Gerd. But how does someone dead blend back into the human community? And just where in the human world are you far enough away from the dead to be safe? So begins most of the most amusing fantasy journeys of the last few years. I’m not going to stick my neck out and say this is anything like the best fantasy book of the year but, in its own terms, it’s certainly one of the best comic novels I’ve read for many a year. Marius is a man who’s grown comfortable in his own skin as a bilker and hustler. When he dies, the skin shrivels and the marks won’t stand still long enough to hear the pitch. They’re far more interested in running away as quickly as possible. With his style completely cramped, he elects to go on a sea trip, i.e. we get into a picaresque format as our roguish hero tries to get by on his wits but is continually frustrated. This leads to some introspection, triggered by occasional sensations. As a question to chew on, how dead are the dead who are still walking around and able to interact with the living? It’s a tricky question and, courtesy of some backstory and one or two meetings with individuals he’s known in the past, our hero comes to a better view of himself. His self-ignorance shrivels along with his skin. He ponders on whether there’s a way of reversing his condition. Should he actually find a King who can lead the dead, would “death” release him? Could he and Gerd actually return to life? For the entertaining answers to these and other relevant questions, you’ll have to read the book. While doing so, you can be assured that the comic greats, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, would probably have found it hilarious.
The Corpse-Rat King is completely beguiling and genuinely amusing, something you rarely find in a book clearly marketed as fantasy. So kudos to Angry Robot for picking up this delightfully non-standard novel and bringing it to the market. If there’s any justice in the world, it will sell like the proverbial hot cakes.
For a review of the sequel, see The Marching Dead.
Cover by Nick Castle Design.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.