The Rat and the Serpent by Bryn Llewellyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Rat and the Serpent by Stephen Palmer (as Bryn Llewellyn)
First of all; I enjoyed this novel, but I had to make it halfway through the book before it grabbed me. This is by far one of the most difficult reads I’ve had in a while. At some times it felt almost as painful as the poor translation of Don Quixote I’d tried to read long ago. It’s written well and for the most part well edited but there are some style choices that made it difficult for me to follow.
This novel reminded me of Thea von Harbou’s Metropolis. It’s written in a similar style. A modern critic said of Metropolis that it was full of over-the-top prose. I don’t agree because I think it was still apropos for its time though this critic cited a number contemporary works that came nowhere near the OTT of Metropolis. But Metropolis was a blend of mythology with technology in what might be described as a Dystopic environment written in a style that tried to emulate some epic classics. And that’s what you get from The Rat and the Serpent which almost becomes something of an anachronistic style of writing.
The serpent in the story gives us the only clue that might explain why this style was chosen. This serpent seems to be drawn from a description that finds it root somewhere between 1400 BCE to 1100 CE and if we used that as our measure then this could have been meant to take place at that time. In keeping with this style there are words that crop up that demanded the use of a dictionary, not so much to understand the meaning as to first find out if they exist in the sense that many were alternate spellings to other words and then after that finally ascertaining the meaning in the reference. I don’t mind because I always have a dictionary handy. What made it more difficult is that there were occasional slang terms out of modern day urbanized terms and a whole slew of created names and words that were there mostly for world building. There were times I would have been happy to know the etymology of these names although that might have slowed things down and for me slowing things down wouldn’t have helped.
There’s a certain mood and tone that goes with the world building that brings to mind Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren which is another novel I struggled through many years ago. But the world of Ugliy is a gray world at best in many ways. It’s difficult to try to separate black and white and everything is covered constantly in soot from sootstorms that plague the region. Somehow this reflected in the style of the writing which created a sort mono paced story that dragged me though the first half of the novel.
Just like Ugliy in the novel who experience multiple times of self doubt while being told he could never be a Citidenizen I felt like giving up several times. But(just like Ugliy) I didn’t and by the time I got halfway through there were finally enough questions in my mind that I wanted answers to that I had to stick it out just a little longer. I don’t think the pace changed appreciably even in the moments that would usually be recognized as tense moments.
There are elements of this story that seem often like allegory; the never ending battle against the erosion and erasure of Mavrosopolis. The Thawers the Dessicators and the Bafflers fighting the wind the frost and the water. Each group had its tower and any of the three could be used to begin the test to rise from Nogoth to Citidenizen. In a way it was like trying to stave off the march of time using strange methods to block collect and remove the agents of erosion. But now as I think about it the whole story also seems to be an allegory of me the reader and the struggle to get through the novel as I look back at my previous paragraph.
This novel stands well as a view into world building from the ground up. Through the narrative as told by Ugliy the shaman of the BlackRat we see it unfold. It’s a rather tainted and prejudicial view, but it’s the only view we have beyond the second voice which for most of the story remains a mystery as to who they are. Each chapter has a two page entry into the thoughts of a second character. Oddly this short bit is just as engaging and informative as the longer version from Ugliy.
In the Nogoths there are several social divisions and all of those have in common the fact that they are all considered nonpersons and none seem satisfied with their lot. Since there is that carrot placed before them that invites them to join the Citidenizens they all have this idyllic notion about how those people live. Since we are not introduced directly with anyone of those who have knowledge of how the Citidenizens live who would be willing to share that experience we have only the view from below where everything up looks so much better and only the glimmer of suspicion for the reader to worry about where things are headed.
To make things interesting Citidenizens seemed to be obsessed with perfection of physical appearance and this makes it unlikely that Ugliy who is a cripple (one bad leg) deformed at birth to ever even dream of becoming Citidenizens. But Ugliy is a shaman of the BlackRat and that gives him a small edge in this world of struggle. I confess that at first I thought this BlackRat thing was just a scam he’d tried to pull to alleviate his own humiliation in front of Atavalens the shaman of the Panther when they were fighting over food. In a way though it seems that often Ugliy is congruent in his grumbling over being humiliated since all of them are at the lowest of the low in the class scale and scraping for any bits of food to sustain themselves and one would think he’d be familiar with and comfortable with humility when trying to find crumbs to satisfy his hunger.
As the story unfolds we meet Zveratu who helps Ugliy to begin the test that should lead to Citidenizenship while Ugliy is paranoid and distrustful and even knows that as a cripple it’s improbable that he’d be allowed to become Citidenizen he still allows this man to push him into this. When he joins the Dessicators he finds he’s allied to his enemy Atavalens and he meets Raknia (who in a peculiar twist to her name is the shaman of the widowspider.)At this point the characters become more caricature than real people and they seem to have some duality in their makeup although for the most part Atavalens is portrayed as just stubborn mean when it comes to Ugliy. Rakina vacillates from giving praise and encouragement to Ugliy to ranting and wanting to murder him-she has her reasons but it’s difficult to take her serious after a while.
The plot of the story or the story itself seems to be one of self discovery and improvement and the blinders that one puts on to justify never looking back. Ugliy despite being crippled becomes focused on the end and as with all the characters we seem to have an end justifies the mean mentality that permeates the story. Ultimately Ugliy’s greatest difficulty in life comes from within and is only minimally influenced by the physical deformity. In his quest he appears to try to maintain some of his humanity but one has to wonder if he ever truly had any. It’s this that makes it difficult to sympathize with any of the characters in this story.
Throughout the story there are a number of interesting things and ideas brought into the story in a sort of discovery fashion for both Ugliy and the reader. But as Ugliy struggles forward many or most seem to become disposable though there are smatterings that show up within the final parts and in all honestly there are so many of these loose pieces to the puzzle that I might easily have overlooked how they connected at the end.
Still even with some confusion there is a story with a plot that seems to thread its way into this novel and it’s enough to bring the reader to a satisfactory conclusion even if there might be some level of frustration with some of the outcome. I do enjoy a book that makes you think and takes you out of your comfort zone just a bit; though while I would have liked the climaxes to have reached a bit higher it might have been a delicate balance with trying not to become too absurd.
Though I wouldn’t recommend this solely for entertainment value If a person is a reader who likes to think and have the dictionary handy this is a fair Dystopic tale that includes shades of paranormal and a slow grinding horror that permeates the writing of such classic writers as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.
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