The Corpse Rat King by Lee Battersby

October 31, 2013 Reviews 1 ★★★★

The Corpse Rat King by Lee BattersbyThe Corpse Rat King (Marius don Hellespont #1) by Lee Battersby
Published: September 6th 2012 by Angry Robot
Format: eARC, 416 pages
Genres: Fantasy, Horror
Source: Publisher
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4 Stars

Marius don Hellespont and his apprentice, Gerd, are professional looters of battlefields. When they stumble upon the corpse of the King of Scorby and Gerd is killed, Marius is mistaken for the monarch by one of the dead soldiers and is transported down to the Kingdom of the Dead.

Just like the living citizens, the dead need a King — after all, the King is God’s representative, and someone needs to remind God where they are.

And so it comes to pass that Marius is banished to the surface with one message: if he wants to recover his life he must find the dead a King. Which he fully intends to do.

Just as soon as he stops running away.

Gritty, filled with black humour and bordering on heretic, The Corpse Rat King isn’t a book for the faint hearted. It’s titular character is dead, and he looks and smells it. There’s an almost sick fascination with excrement and waste of any kind throughout. The whole book is dirty, filthy, and yet somehow manages to entertain.

Marius don Hellespont is a rogue, a delinquent, a scavenger of the lowest form. But the author wants us to sympathise with, and horror of horrors, actually like him. I’ll admit that I wasn’t going to finish this novel at first. Marius is so other, so frighteningly different from anyone I’ve ever tried to understand, that I was going to give up. Lee Battersby could take his gutter mind and amuse other readers: his début just wasn’t for me. What changed is that the author introduced characters around Marius who slowly showed us another side of him: a kinder side that knew the difference between right and wrong and lived with a unique code of honour. The turning point for me is when Keth appears, Marius’ lady friend who believed in him, loved him even, but had to draw the line somewhere and ask him to either live up to his promises or leave.

There aren’t many female characters in the book, and the two that Marius shows any fondness for are both courtesans. Make of that what you will.

Marius spends about half the novel running away from the dead and the gruesome task they have set him. I would have enjoyed the dark Jack Sparrow style adventures if it hadn’t been for how dirty it all was. The second half of the novel is much more entertaining as Marius uses Keth as motivation for his task, to prove he is worthy of her love. The re-introduction of Gerd at this point also helped me enjoy the book more since I’d seen him as a nuisance through Marius’ eyes earlier, but now I was able to enjoy his innocence and the humour it lent the story.

The world-building is bizarre and haphazard in this book: it’s clear that the author expects his readers to envision the places he describes. He manages to paint clear pictures of the each place, but I have no flavour for the totality of the world. I don’t know how big the continent is, nor the arrangement of the cities and rivers. A map would have greatly improved my reading experience. I read an eARC however, and it’s possible the that finished, printed version has a lovely map for readers to ogle. I was also surprised and rather horrified to note that Marius’ preoccupation with filth and shit extended to his descriptions of cities and landmarks.

It’s the magic of the dead that intrigued me the most in this book – how is Marius alive, how does his heart still beat, his tears still run, and as he’s so fond of mentioning, how does he still feel desire? I don’t know whether I got a satisfactory answer to all my questions – it’s clear that his will had a lot to do with it, but the powers of the dead are still a box of mysteries to me. Perhaps this is the point of the novel though, that we don’t know what death entails, but it’s not as boring as we’ve imagined it!

My journey in reading The Corpse-Rat King has been odd – I’ve switched from disliking the non-traditional story and its crass protagonist to somehow laughing at the ribald jokes and being disappointed when it was over. I have the sequel, and want to read it, but perhaps after a very long break so I can recover from this instalment!

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