Quick Bites : King Rat by China Mieville

“The streets were full. It was a Saturday and people were thronging the streets, coming to and from Brixton market, determined on their outwards journey and slow on the way back, laden down with cheap colourful clothes and big fruit. Trains rumbled, competed with the sounds of Doca, Reggae, Rave, Rap, Jungle, House and the shouting: all the cut-up market rhythm. Rudeboys in outlandish trousers clustered around corners and music shops, touched fists. Shaven-headed men in tight tops and AIDS ribbons made for Brockwell Park or The Brixtonian cafe. Food wrappers and lost television supplements tugged at ankles. The capricious traffic lights were a bad joke: pedestrians hovered like suicides at the edge of the pavement, launched themselves across at the slightest sign of a gap. The cars made angry noises and sped away, anxious to escape. Impassive the people watched them pass by…  A gust of wind stained the air brown with leaves. Fabian swung into the street. The leaves boiled around him, stuck to his jacket. Pared-down trees lined the tarmac.”

King Rat is a brilliantly evocative book, filled with dark supernatural themes and a sprawling rendition of modern day London infused with the drum and bass of the “Jungle” reggae music which is so central to Mieville’s gritty, soiled rendition of London.

King Rat follows Saul, a young man who is framed for his father’s murder and whisked from his jail cell by a mysterious figure who claims to be his uncle – King Rat. Under the tuition of his ‘Uncle’ Saul develops the powers of his half-rat nature, climbing buildings, exploring sewers and becoming one with London’s grimy backstreets and unknown passageways. He learns that King Rat no longer has control over his subjects and the rats start to see Saul as a possible replacement. Saul is introduced to Anansi, Lord of Spiders and Loplop, Bird Superior who along with King Rat have suffered great humiliation and defeat at the hands of the mysterious and powerful Pied Piper – the reason the rats no longer respect their King. King Rat is convinced that Saul, being half human and half rat and half immune to the piper’s song, no matter if the piper plays to bewitch humans or rats. Unbeknownst to Saul however his friend Natasha, a well-renowned DJ and Jungle* music artist is struggling to complete her latest piece of music and finds the key in the music of a mysterious flute-player who turns up at her door. As she is slowly drawn into the piper’s  bewitchment the city rumbles towards a showdown of cataclysmic forces, all played out to the beat of drum and bass.

Mieville’s writing style is unique in that they paint their world with a rhythmic turn of peculiar metaphor and eloquent description of action and mood rather than of appearance. The books pulls the reader into the back-end of London and keeps them addicted on the words of every character, propelling us through the chapters with a ferocity to match the titular character.

King Rat is an engaging, fast-paced and uniquely crafted novel and I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a read. You can pick it up on Book Depository or Amazon. I’ll leave you with an extract of China’s description of Jungle music and very much encourage you to go and enjoy some Jungle reggae while you read King Rat.

“To start, a tiny piano run from some histrionic Swingbeat rubbish. She had stripped it down so severely that she had dehumanised it. This was something different from her normal approach. The piano, the instrument that so often ruined Jungle, making her think of Happy House and idiotic Ibiza clubs, here turned into an instrument that signalled the destruction of anything human in this world. Deeply plaintive and melancholy, but ghostly. The piano tried to remember melancholia, and presented it as if for approval. Is this it? Is this sadness? It asked, I can’t recall. And under the piano she faded in, for a fraction of a second, subliminal, she laid down a sample of radio static.

She had sought it for a long time, recording great swathes of sound from all the bands on her radio, rejecting them all, until she found and seized and created exactly what she wanted. And here she hinted at it.

The beat kicked in after the piano went around and came around several times, each time separated by a severe gap, a rupture in the music. And the beat was all snares at first, fast and dreamy, and a sound like a orchestration, fabricated emotion, a failed search for feeling.

And then the bassline.

A minimal program, a single thud, pause, another thud, pause, another, longer pause… double thud and back to the beginning. And underneath it all she began to make those snatches of radio static a little longer, and longer still, and looping them more and more randomly, until it was a constant, shifting refrain under the beat. A chunk of interference that sounded like someone trying to break out of white noise. She was proud of that static, had created it by finding a station on shortwave and then just missing it, so that the peaks and troughs of the crackling could have been voices, eager to make contact, and failing… or they could have just been static.

The radio existed to communicate. But here it was failing, it had gone rouge, it had forgotten it’s purpose like the piano, and the people could not reclaim the city.

Because it was a city that Natasha saw as she listened. She sped through the air at huge speed between vast crumbling buildings, everything gray, towering and enormous and flattened, variegated and empty. And Natasha painted this picture carefully, took a long time creating it, dropping a hundred hints of humanity into the track, hints that could not deliver, dead ends, disappointments.

And when she had sucked her listening in to the city, all alone, Natasha brought on the Wind. A sudden burst of flute mimicking the almost-speaking of the static, a trick that she had pilfered from a Steve Reich album – God knows where she had heard that – where he made violins mimic human voices. The static rolled on and the beat rolled and fell. The flute would shudder into existence behind it for a moment, a shrill echo, and then it would disappear. Guests of Wind sweeping rubbish off the streets. Then again More and more often until two guests of flute would appear, overlaying each other.”


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