Shorter review: initially a splash of fresh of water, which slowly becomes murkier and murkier …
Longer review: Writing reviews means a few things more than pure reading for pleasure. One of the primary differences is: to finish or not to finish? For pleasure, a person can simply abandon a book when it no longer pleases them. For a blog, there is a certain sense of obligation to push on to have the complete view for a complete review; it’s difficult to write an opinion about a whole if only a piece is known. It thus happens that reading can sometimes become a chore for a blogger. Such is my experience with Mary Gentle’s Rats and Gargoyles (1999).
Possessing a wonderfully atmospheric opening, one that draws the reader in and begs them to read further, Rats and Gargoyles, unfortunately, begins to unravel after its opener. The tight sense of setting and purpose begins to dilute itself in less than wholly meaningful character interaction, stabs at humor, and a plot and character list that show few signs of reducing themselves in size. Each step forward gets harder and harder…
Rats and Gargoyles does eventually fulfill it’s (unspoken) promise to the reader, i.e. that all of the setup and foreshadowing is leading somewhere, but not without having given readers multiple chances to lose themselves along the way. A fully Gothic setting, the novel takes place in a wood and stone city perpetually night, ruled by thirty-six mysterious gods who enslave human-sized rats to do their bidding, who in turn enslave actual humans to do the dirty work of building and maintaining the Medieval-esque city. The rats, fed up with the gods’ oppression, have hatched a plan to drive them out and re-take the city. The plan involving the cooperation of humanity, however, meaning a troublesome alliance arises that may or may not see the rats’ plan through to fruition.
For other readers undoubtedly Gentle’s creation will generate a more positive response. The diction is terse, the scenes generally quick, and the premise imaginative. And yet somehow it’s a novel that spins its tires, making little progress fast. This is not to say every good novel need move at break neck speed, rather that the pace with which Gentle chooses to advance her tale tests one’s patience. It’s a monster of plot and characters that takes its time moving anywhere.
Not a complaint, only a dislike, there is really only one issue with the novel: inconsistency in tone. The setting as gothic as can be, the gods as nefarious as can be, and the rats’ plan as devious as can be, the fictional weight attached to these elements does not match the often playful tone its main characters adopt when interacting. Atmosphere says: serious shit is about to go down in this shadowy city, whereas dialogue says: Whee! Look ma, no hands! This mis-match off putting, it can be a struggle reconciling if/when these two are supposed to work together toward a common goal.
I love the title, however. Feeling like one that occurred long into, perhaps even after, the creative process had finished, one can see Gentle asking herself: What to call this story? Overthrow of the Gods? War of Stones? Plague of Fanes? No, fuck it, let’s just go with sheer mood—Rats and Gargoyles. And it wholly fits the setting.
In the end, Rats and Gargoyles has several positives going for it: a truly unique premise, moments of Gothic atmosphere, and story setup that intrigues. Unfortunately (for this reader) Gentle takes her sweet time, beating about the bushes getting the individual plot threads moving at anything approaching a good pace, not to mention failing to keep the tone of the setting consistent with the tone of dialogue. For as much as the novel is Gentle’s singular creation, I still wonder what it would have been like in the hands of a minimalist like William Gibson or Jon Courtenay Grimwood. I can’t help but feel these writers would have capitalized on the gloom of the setting by developing it in parallel to the dark plans of the various factions in play, no comedic lapses to disrupt mood. Look at any painting of a Gothic church: the sky is always gray.