Lee Battersby – The Corpse-Rat King

And one more review from Interzone in 2012.

The Corpse-Rat King

Lee Battersby, Angry Robot, 416pp, pb

In September 2012, Lavie Tidhar identified an apparent new trend in fantastic writing, which he dubbed ‘slacker fantasy’, distinguished by the narrative’s ‘reluctance of agency’, that is, its lack of conflict, and by sympathetic but passive characters. His exemplar was David Tallerman’s Giant Thief (Angry Robot), in which Easie Damasco spent most of his time trying to disengage himself from whatever action was going on. In his review Tidhar nailed precisely what it was that had irritated me about the novel: I also dislike contemporary slacker fiction but hadn’t made the connection.

Lee Battersby’s The Corpse-Rat King seems to stray into similar territory. It is true that Marius dos Hellespont has rather grander aspirations than Damasco, and indeed comes from a wealthier background. It is true also that Hellespont is much more knowledgeable and competent than Damasco, though disinclined to put his skills to earning a more conventional living. However, while the reader might see Hellespont as being down on his luck – and it is difficult to imagine sinking much lower than prowling battlefields, looting from corpses – he would doubtless explain that he was taking advantage of a good business opportunity. Whatever else happens, Hellespont knows how to tell a good story, as well given that the novel relies on the reader being more interested in the story than in the plot.

Except that the plot itself is potentially fascinating. Hellespont has just robbed the late king of Scorby when he suddenly finds himself down among the dead, who have mistaken him for the king and wish him to rule over them. When the error is realised, the dead insist that Hellespont find them a new king. He determines that his replacement should be Tanspar, the late king, not least because this will necessitate his returning to Scorby to find and crown the body, and in doing this, Hellespont has some notion of being able to escape. However, the dead, as they point out, can reach him anywhere, and send Gerd, Hellespont’s dead apprentice to accompany him. Furthermore, Hellespont has been mysteriously transformed into something that looks dead but isn’t quite, though one begins to suspect this is a condition conferred for later authorial convenience, given the way that it rarely seems to trouble Hellespont.

One might suppose that Hellespont would be off like a shot, to crown the new King of the Dead as soon as possible. Instead, having shed Gerd, Hellespont meanders homeward in a picaresque fashion, stopping off here and there to undergo set-piece adventures, in which the reader learns more and more about the real Marius dos Hellespont and the omniscient narrator opines about this and that in a way that is at times slightly too reminiscent of an overly well-lunched elderly buffer down the pub. They’re very good set-piece adventures but more than once I found myself checking the pagination, wondering how long it would be before the story began to focus on the important stuff without Hellespont having to be spurred into action by another appearance of the dead. It’s well over halfway through the novel before Hellespont seems to remember he has a job to get on with, after which the narrative kicks into impressively high gear.

And that, perhaps, is the real problem with this novel. A good half of it is scene-setting, throat-clearing, procrastinatory narrative. There is little doubt that one way or another Hellespont will achieve his aim, simply because he is that kind of character, and this is not the kind of novel that challenges one’s expectation of ‘that kind of character’. One could perhaps see the picaresque element as providing a tour round Hellespont’s interior life, explicating his motives, showing how he became the person he is today, and crucially suggesting that he does bad things for good reasons, so making him morally acceptable. One could, but quite apart from the fact that one suspects Hellespont would as a matter of course have several layers of cover story, it would over-dignify the fact that the author, for whatever reason, simply isn’t getting down to telling the story itself.

Which is a pity as the plot is ultimately much more compelling than the character. We are clearly intended to love Hellespont but often, while he was larking about above ground, I wondered how the dead felt, waiting for him to bring them their king, knowing that he was procrastinating. We are invited to sympathise with Hellespont’s predicament yet he has brought it on himself, while the dead, like all his other victims, are being cheated. Which is funny if you like that slacker vibe. If you don’t, you’re left with an affable but baggy novel which could be so much more if it would just shape up.