I had previously read Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The City & The City; now, I’ve finally read Miéville’s debut novel, King Rat, which is intriguing, shows some of his promise, but is not as compelling as his later works.
King Rat is an urban fantasy set in a gritty, mucky, surreal London, beyond the ken of humans. The protagonist, Saul Garamond, becomes caught in an ancient power-battle: King Rat, Anansi (the Spider King) and Loplop (the Bird King) plot revenge against an infamous, magical flutist who is preserved in human myth for his deeds in a small German town (note: if you’re curious, Anansi is a major character in West African folklore, and Loplop is the bird-like alter-ego of artist Max Ernst).
Saul’s human existence is turned upside down when he is falsely accused of murdering his father. Saul is sprung from jail by King Rat, who turns out to be a close relative. King Rat is untrustworthy, but he takes Saul under his wing and, together with Anansi and Loplop, they plan to battle the evil Piper.
King Rat includes many of the imaginative elements found in Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels (particularly Perdido Street Station), but Miéville’s first novel doesn’t provide the depth found in his later works. King Rat is a lighter read than the Bas-Lag stories (King Rat’s feathery 320 page trade-paperback is much easier to carry about too: both Perdido Street Station and The Scar are more than twice the weight).
I enjoyed King Rat, but I should have read it prior to being spoiled by Miéville’s later works.
A final note: In case you happen upon the Kirkus Review of the novel (which contains a few minor spoilers), please note that the reviewer didn’t read the novel carefully enough: the plot does not contain a “troublesome flaw”: King Rat lied about many things, one of them being the family history of Saul’s mother .