cover image King Rat

King Rat

China Mieville. Tor Books, $23.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-312-89073-5

In the past decade, contemporary renderings of traditional fairy tales have become a staple of fantasy fiction. This flashy riff on the Pied Piper theme marks a notable extension of the trend and an auspicious debut for its author. Saul Garamond is a restless young Londoner, aimlessly adrift, when he is wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his father. Saul is snatched from the authorities by a mysterious savior named King Rat, who claims to be both the deposed leader of the rodent army driven out of Hamelin 700 years before and Saul's real father. Raised as a human, Saul has much to unlearn before King can teach him to become a worthy opponent of the Rat Catcher, who framed Saul for murder and is still pursuing King. Meanwhile, the Rat Catcher forces his friendship on Saul's composer friend, Natasha, by posing as a flautist who hopes to work his melodies into her ""drum `n' bass"" dance music and turn London's hip-hop underground into his unwitting stormtroopers. Though the plot is predictable and Saul's efforts to get in touch with his inner rat are clearly patterned on the Star Wars school of messiah-making, Mi ville pulls the reader into the story through the kinetic energy of his prose. From the novel's opening image (""The trains that enter London arrive like ships sailing across the roofs""), the narrative crackles with a mesmerizing melange of impressionistic description and street slang that powerfully limns the squalid London cityscape. Paced at the rhythm of the Jungle music it evokes, this dark urban fantasy proves nearly as irresistible as the Pied Piper's tunes. (Sept.)