The Corpse-Rat King
by Lee BattersbyMarius Helles has seen a lot of things in his life of adventure and hustle, but he's not yet ready to end it. That's why he stays away from battlefields until after the fighting is done. Only then does he feel safe enough to come looting, and he's careful to take only what he can swallow and keep an eye out for suspicious soldiers.
However that's not enough to save him and his dim assistant, Gerd, when they find the body of the fallen king and get too greedy for their own good. In a case of mistaken identity Marius is almost made king of the dead, but when the dead realise that he's not fit for the role they send him back to the land of the living to find them a more worthy ruler. The only trouble is, they send him back as a ghoul. He has the powers of the dead, but he's not quite alive in the normal sense. People run screaming when they get a close look at his appearance, and this makes it hard for him to walk amongst them.
Marius isn't keen on finishing his task, even though the dead have promised him his life back if he succeeds. He thinks it's impossible, and his first instinct is to run. But the dead are everywhere. The plot takes us from underground gambling dens to islands of dung (really) to underwater wrecks inhabited by skeletal horses, and we never know where Marius will end up next. I particularly loved the great, impossible bone cathedral. Lee Battersby seems to relish in-depth, witty descriptions of the politics and quirks of each place, particularly when they involve corrupt and eccentric characters. It's a grim world, and the author's black humour reminded me of Joe Abercrombie's books and David Tallerman's Giant Thief.
Marius is a rogue and a chancer, and he's amusingly unapologetic about his way of life. He's selfish and condescending. But that doesn't impress Keth, the pretty tavern owner he dreams of settling down with. She's convinced he will never change his dishonest ways and become the kind of reliable man she'd want to live with. So throughout the story we're wondering if he'll prove her wrong, get his life back, and find a suitable king for the dead. He's an interesting character so he always had my sympathy, even when he didn't necessarily deserve to succeed.
Towards the end the book adopts a slower pace, shuffling zombie-like towards its conclusion as the main characters queue for hours during this late stage of their journey. It's a momentary lapse of pace in what is otherwise a very engaging book. On the surface it may be all about death, but it's actually a story full of humour and warmth. Lee Battersby has quite a good eye for subtle characterisations. Gerd is dim but he's not a caricature, and many of the larger than life characters we encounter surprised me by not behaving quite as I'd first expected them to. The Corpse-Rat King is a bizarre, heartwarming romp.
3rd September 2012
Review © Ros Jackson