The story is narrated by Matthew Mark, a poorhouse boy set to work in the Dickensian misery of Pratt’s the engravers but released from this drudgery into a world of excitement by the mysterious Rimmer, a larger than life, one-eyed adventurer straight out of central casting. Peter Carey used much the same character (and also the same character as Matthew Mark) in his recent Parrot and Olivier in America. Together, Rimmer and Matt become embroiled in a dangerous battle against time to defeat a monstrous invasion of giant rats, who appear to be mobilising the millions of ordinary rats in 1860s London into organised armies, systematically waging war against humans.
There is a fine sense of place in the novel, and a breathless rush of adventure. The plot unfolds briskly and without sentiment: characters come to wholly unpleasant ends and none of this is sugar-coated. There is a battle between good and evil, in the form of the giant rats, but also between good and evil in the human world, and between altruism and self-interest, common sense and arrogance. There are real characters interwoven into the narrative – much of the drama takes place in the sewers being built, at that time, by Joseph Bazalgette, and he is a main character in the novel, as is the artist William Powell Frith, who painted,among other things, scenes of the deprivation of Victorian England.
The novel is by no means perfect. There is only one strong female character, for example, which feels unbalanced these days. The use of phonetic dialect in the dialogue – for an Aberdonian, and Irish and London characters, is a mistake and feels amateurish. But that can be overlooked and, overall, this is good fun.
It’s also, in some ways, a forerunner of steampunk. It was written in 1978, some time before the term was invented (to describe, according to Wikipedia, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers and Homunculus by James Blaylock, and I’d heartily recommend both of these novels, too). Although we’re set in Victorian London, we’re firmly in the age of technology, and Rattus Rex features an iron-clad train, a dirigible balloon and a subterranean vacuum tube designed to circulate parcels quickly across the city but used, here, to surreptitiously move people about.
If you know of reluctant readers, this is a cracking entertainment for them to get their teeth into.