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.
One of the books signed out of last year’s inaugural Angry Robot Open Door Month – and a book picked by Amanda Rutter, whose taste rarely leads me wrong – Lee Battersby’s The Corpse-Rat King was always going to be of interest to me. Add to that the rather awesome cover and an interesting synopsis and you could be sure I would be along for the ride. Unfortunately, my ride wasn’t as smooth as I could have wished. Partly this is completely due to my own head space: when I started this book I wasn’t in the best place to focus on reading due to personal circumstances. But partly it was due to the book itself: I had a hard time connecting to the main character and the middle of the book left me a bit muddled.
To start with that first complaint, Marius was a hard character to come to grips with. I usually have no problem connecting to less than morally virtuous, I got along great with Mark Lawrence’s Jorg, so the fact that Marius is a bit of an unpleasant character to start with – sacrificing your less-than-talented apprentice so you can escape with your life is usually frowned upon in civilised circles – shouldn’t have been a problem, but I found it hard to connect with him. It was hard to get a sense of him and it was only after about a third of the book that I suddenly noticed I did actually care what happened to Marius; he’d slowly gotten under my skin. And in fact, by the end of the book I was sad to say goodbye to Marius and was glad to learn there’s more of his story to come in next year’s The Marching Dead.
Some of Battersby’s other characters, such as Marius’ apprentice Gerd and Kings Nandus and Scorbus are far easier to like and especially in the latter half of the story the dialogues between the different characters and Marius had me snorting out loud. By the end of the book, both Marius and Gerd are changed beyond their obvious state of—shall we say animation? They’ve grown and changed their outlook on life, though bad habits are hard to break and Marius remains as devious as he starts out, planning another con to help him on his way to leaving the thief’s life he’s led since his teens.
After the rather spectacular beginning, the story hit a bit of a slump while Marius gets to grip with his new situation and his new assignment. In hindsight, the need for this section is clear, but while reading, this was where I got stuck when I first picked it up. There isn’t that much wrong with this section, other than Marius going off and doing other things before getting back to what he needs to do. Compared to the beginning and the final third of the book, the middle bit felt somewhat slow and just wasn’t as gripping to me. In contrast, the final hundred or so pages just fly by and are easily the strongest part of the novel. They show off Battersby’s strengths: funny dialogue and fabulous, if somewhat creepy, descriptions—a cathedral built of bones? The Parisian Catacombs gave me the creeps, this would give me nightmares!
Despite my initial qualms about Marius and the book’s slow middle, The Corpse-Rat King has left me wanting more. While Marius’ main quest in this book – finding the dead a king – might have been filled, there are still some loose ends and the happy ever after or not, as it might turn out, for both Gerd and Marius is still waiting in the wings somewhere and I’m very curious to see how the author will get Marius, Gerd and the reader there. If you’re looking for an interesting new voice in fantasy and an entertaining read, look no further than Lee Battersby and his debut The Corpse-Rat King.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.