“He’s Only Mostly Dead”: Lee Battersby’s “The Corpse-Rat King” (2012)

Lee Battersby’s debut novel, coming out in October from Angry Robot Books, had me at its title: The Corpse-Rat King. Its deliciously macabre story of Marius, a corpse-rat, or a man who makes his money as a battlefield scavenger, looting from dead soldiers after the fighting has ceased, is set into motion one seemingly ordinary day when Marius discovers a fallen king lying on the ground and decides to pocket his crown.

Moments later, when more soldiers arrive on the scene, he’s forced to lie still and play dead, because robbing from dead soldiers, and particularly from the king, is a crime punishable by death, a fate that befalls his young companion and student, Gerd, who he failed to protect while trying to save his own life. This point would seem to become fairly moot a few moments later, however, when Marius finds himself underground in the Kingdom of the Dead, for you see, the dead had mistaken him not only for being deceased himself but for being a king, due to the crown he has in his possession. They believe that God has forgotten about them, leaving them to molder in the earth, and therefore need a king to communicate with God, to remind him about them. Unfortunately for them, though, Marius is neither dead nor a king, and when they discover the truth, they send him back above on a quest to find them a king in order to atone for his lie. He is in a drastically altered state, however, for they have basically turned him (at least on the surface) into a walking, rotting corpse just like them albeit with a still beating heart, and his only hope of regaining the life he lost is to accomplish the mission on which they’ve sent him. They also task the fully dead Gerd, who is still suffering from feelings of betrayal at Marius’ hands, with accompanying him and making sure he does what he has promised. What follows is a cheerfully twisted journey throughout different kingdoms and environs of this fantasy world, over the course of which Marius evolves from a supremely self-centered rogue into a bit kinder of an individual.

From the first page, I was expecting to unabashedly love The Corpse-Rat King, but that proved to not quite be the case. I had been hoping for the tale to spend more time on Marius being mistaken for a king in the Land of the Dead–a sort of cross between Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book–and so was initially disappointed that the novel takes care of the misunderstanding in a handful of pages, leaving Marius to episodically wander around above ground for the bulk of the story, rather than exploring the world and society underneath. I never completely got over that. Battersby is a very talented writer with a gift for clever and darkly funny prose (I found myself reading many passages aloud), as well as solid character writing, but too often after its very strong and enticing opening, the novel’s main journey seems to settle into storytelling beats that are reminiscent of too many other fantasy tales. What could have been a really unique novel with an extremely fresh voice is instead a very well-written story with a not particularly distinctive plot.

With that said, Battersby clearly has a vivid, full-blooded imagination which shines throughout the book, which gave me consistent and repeated glimmers of the better novel I feel The Corpse-Rat King had the potential to be and which Battersby certainly has the potential to write in the future. There is one particular sequence that I absolutely loved in which, submerged under the ocean, Marius discovers a deceased monarch whose bones, after the shipwreck that killed him, became jumbled together with those of his favorite horse, creating a sort of bony centaur with the personalities of both the king and the horse merged as inextricably as their remains are. The scene practically sparkles with creativity and wit but doesn’t last nearly as long as I had hoped while reading it, and that seems to happen repeatedly here–the most interesting, imaginative aspects seem to only appear fleetingly with most of the time taken up with the episodic journeying.

Still, Battersby has a fantastic protagonist in Marius don Hellespont who, despite his flaws, manages to be likable and funny from start to finish, often in spite of himself. His relationship with Gerd is, by turns, raucously funny and then unexpectedly poignant. And throughout, Battersby strikes a sophisticated balance between the fantastical and the gritty and the humorous, so even though this first excursion into his fantasy landscape left me feeling slightly underwhelmed, I am eager to read future work of his, including this novel’s upcoming sequel, Marching Dead.

Pre-order The Corpse-Rat King

Author: Robert Berg

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