Sunday, November 25, 2012

100 Books 113 - Lee Battersby's THE CORPSE-RAT KING

Is that a crown in your pocket, or are you just happy to come and rule us?

That's not a quote from this novel, but really? It totally could be.

Marius Helles makes his living robbing the corpses of soldiers who have fallen in battle, a practice he has refined to an art -- until he has no living to make at all. Tee hee. What happens is, he robs the wrong corpse -- that of a fallen king -- and is observed holding a crown by one of the recently dead, who misreads the situation and next thing Marius knows, he's been sucked down to the world of the dead! Whom the gods are ignoring! Because, the dead think, they have no king! So they need a king! Marius has a crown, therefore he must be a king! So he can be their king! But of course, Marius doesn't want to be dead, even if he gets to be KING DEAD!

All of that sounds spoilery, but that's all just the first chapter of The Corpse-Rat King, in which the newly-dead Marius gets his mission: find the dead a king, or else. But like all good Heroes, Marius at first Refuses the Call, and runs away. As excuses for a tour of a funky fantasy world go, this is a highly original one.

Battersby, too, took some time making this more than just a generic fantasy world. There are a lot of nice touches, like a short discourse on a tradition of throwing corn dollies into the water at the beginning of an ocean voyage and the industry of dolly-making that has grown up around it, that, combined with Zombie Marius' antics, make this book a genuine pleasure to read.

There are some disturbingly funny moments, such as when Marius almost "rescues"* a drowned Mad King who is a dig-in-your ribs reference to Caligula (he even named his horse "Littleboot" which is roughly an English translation of "Caligula" -- the nickname bestowed on the beloved toddler son of the Roman commander Germanicus that stuck right on through the kid's rise to the imperial throne) and rides him like a horsey beneath the waves. Or when... but that would be spoilery. Eff off. But oh, how I giggled.

This is another novel that I started and let go by the wayside because of shiny things that came my way. This should not reflect on the book's quality, however. I'm just distractable that way. And though I had read many other things between the putting-aside and the taking-back-up-again (a span of three or four weeks), I did not have to refresh my memory as to what had been going on. And once I was reading it again, I kept on at a giddy pace, carried away by Battersby's wonderful world building (and cathedral building; the Cathedral of Bones licks the Iron Throne hollow as an enduring taunt/symbol of a founding ruler's conquests) and Marius' resourcefulness as he first runs away from and then embraces his quest, like every hero does.

The ending leaves room for a sequel, by the way. Hurrah for Mostly Dead Marius!

*For "rescue" read "spirits away so he can proceed to the land of the dead and become their king."

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