Book Review: The Corpse-Rat King, by Lee Battersby

Title: The Corpse-Rat King

Author: Lee Battersby

Publisher: Angry Robot, August 2012

Length: 416 pages

Price: $7.99

ISBN: 978-0-85766-287-3

 

Marius don Hellespont and his apprentice Gerd are corpse-rats – professional looters who find their living on corpse-strewn battlefields before the dead are collected by their fellow soldiers. Marius has taught Gerd the most important rule of looting is to “only steal what you can swallow.” But when Marius discovers the King of Scorby himself among the dead, the temptation of a rarely-worn-in-battle crown is too much for even a seasoned professional like him to ignore. When Marius is mistakenly taken to the Kingdom of the Dead with the crown in his possession, the dead feel duped. They take Marius’ heartbeat, and tell him if he wishes to live again, he must find them a king.

The Corpse-Rat King is the first full-length novel by author Lee Battersby. Battersby is also the author of a collection titled Through Soft Air. His short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies alike.  The Claws of Native Ghosts and Father Muerte & The Flesh have both won Australian Shadows Awards, and he has numerous other awards for short stories, including five Aurealis Awards. Marching Dead, the sequel to The Corpse-Rat King, is scheduled for publication by Angry Robot in 2013.

As a debut novel, The Corpse-Rat King sets the bar pretty high for future works. Battersby assaults readers with creepiness right from the outset, and the ridiculous situations the characters find themselves in makes for subtle, chuckle-worthy humor that never feels out of place. It’s clear that Battersby has a real flair for storytelling. His fantastic descriptions often catch readers off-guard and vulnerable to unexpected emotions, while still managing to keep the overall tone lighthearted and comedic.

What struck me the most, was that The Corpse-Rat King manages to be a zombie novel, without being a zombie novel. It certainly isn’t marketed as a zombie novel; if it were, I likely would have missed out on reading it, as I have an aversion to most things zombie. Unlike most modern tales of the undead, though, Marius is not afflicted by a terrible disease; there is no contagion and no pandemic, only a somewhat rotten state of physical being that is useful and humorous as often as it is inconvenient or gruesome.

Throughout the story, Marius learns a lot about his priorities in life. Lines such as “The men of power, with access to money, and lands and all that Borgho could provide, and who put into place whatever demand the King made with no care for others as long as it increased their money, or power, or both,” bring to mind struggles as old as time. Current relationships between U.S. politicians and Wall Street is only the most recent example from the real world, but it has been happening all over the world for time immemorial. It seems this is one lesson of life we think and talk a lot about, but never seem able to eradicate. Battersby really only touches on it, but he touches on it well, making a point to remark that common con-men are no different from those with more overt positions of authority in their abuses of power and advantage.

I would recommend The Corpse-Rat King to mature readers who like dark humor and aren’t offended by occasional vulgar words and situations. I look forward to reading more adventures of the undead from Lee Battersby.

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