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BOOK REVIEWS: August 1999
By Paula Guran

KING RAT
by China Mieville
Tor/$23.95/320p
ISBN: 0312890737
(Also avaialable in paperback)

book cover Jailed on suspicion of murdering his father, a bewildered Saul Garamond is sprung by a stinking, shadowy apparition of a man in a filthy trenchcoat. His rescuer claims that not only is he King of the Rats, but that Saul is rodent royalty and half-rat himself and that his life is in danger. Possessed of superhuman strength and agility, King Rat shows Saul his city -- a London of rooftops and alleys and, most importantly, subterranean sewers. Saul draws sustenance from his "newly tarnished world," its reeking smell and fetid muck. He discovers garbage is not only delicious, but somehow magically strengthening. Like King Rat he soon masters soundless stealth, learns to melt into shadows, to squeeze through small cracks and openings, and climb straight up walls. He realizes that it is "a dirty, raw magic, a spell that stank of piss" has that has enthralled him, an "urban voodoo" that fuels him with a "rude, secular energy." But his enemy -- the one King Rat claims has already killed his father and that only Saul can defeat -- is stronger yet. The Piper who plays a flute and forces anyone to dance to his destructive tune has discovered, through Saul's friend Natasha, a new weapon in sound sampling and modern technology.

This is no frothy fairy tale of a lost prince regaining his heritage set to trills and glissandos of the past. Mieville's urban fantasy is fueled by the powerful rhythms of Jungle -- "The child of House, the child of Raggamuffin, the child of Dancehall, the apotheosis of black music, the Drum and Bass soundtrack...stolen from Hip Hop, born of Funk," with "beats too fast to dance to unless you were wired. It was the bassline you followed with your feet, the bassline that gave Jungle its soul." As Elvis Costello (who probably heard it from Thelonious Monk) has said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," but Mieville dances damned well. His eloquent passages on Drum 'n' Bass may not make everyone (especially those over 30) hear its throbbing beat, but it should come close enough. Baby boomers may realize how an earlier generation felt when writers began using rock 'n' rock as a literary metaphor. And that's part of the point -- this is not just a dark fantasy, or an "other London" tale updating Thomas de Quincey or even Michael Moorcock and Iain Sinclair; nor is it merely a dazed-and-confused youth seeking identiy story or a clever dark myth. It's all of that and it is written by a distinct, imaginative new writer of depth and intelligence. Rather like another debut novel from a twenty-something a few years back -- Poppy Z. Brite's LOST SOULS -- this may be one of those books readers will either hate or love. But I found myself, as Saul does, "gorged on the supernatural and surreal," disarmed, disturbed, and enthralled. Big up to China Mieville.

THE NIGHTMARE CHRONICLES
Douglas Clegg
Dorchester/Leisure/$5.50/368p
ISBN: 084394580X

book cover This collection of 13 stories by Douglas Clegg contains tales that are sometimes quite violent and occasionally deal with the definitely repellent, but, like M. R. James, Douglas Clegg can "write about the vile and horrific without seeming to smear it over himself or you." Like Shirley Jackson he has an understated precision of language and the ability to portray his characters emotionally in a wickedly effective manner. And, like Stephen King, he loves to tell stories and tells them well. At the same time, Clegg is a thoroughly modern writer who tackles all the taboos. His writing is like a potent drink that goes down with deceptive smoothness -- right before it knocks you on your derriere. In this, his first collection of short fiction, Clegg uses an intriguing narrative device to frame the stories -- a super-amped extension of "The Ransom of Red Chief." The child victim of a vicious kidnapping kidnappers turns the tables and tortures his captors with nightmares -- each an individual story. Without doubt, one of the best collections of the year.

THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR: 12th ANNUAL COLLECTION
Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, editors
St. Martin's /$17.95/624p.
ISBN: 0312206860

book cover The editors again show readers how non-generic horror and fantasy can be with this always-excellent anthology. This year's entry in the award-winning series seems particularly dark -- a plus as far as I'm concerned, of course. Peter Straub's novella, "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff," has the flavor of Charles Dickens, but with a modern-day revenge spin and it alone is worth the book's purchase price. Relative newcomer Kelly Link has two entries -- a highly original updating of Hans Christian Anderson with "Travels with the Snow Queen'' and the haunting "The Specialist's Hat'': Three of my personal favorites from 1998 -- Dennis Etchison's "Inside the Cackle Factory," John Kessel's, "Every Angel Is Terrifying," and Norman Partridge's "Blackbirds -- are included as well stories from Jorge Luis Borges, A. S. Byatt, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Michael Marshall Smith, Jane Yolen and a raft of outstanding others. As always, Windling (fantasy) and Datlow (horror) offer concise, complete looks at the year and a lengthy list of honorable mentions. Ed Bryant covers horror and fantasy in the media and Seth Johnson writes on comics. YEAR'S BEST is, again, required reading you will relish.


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