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The Rat and the Serpent

by Bryn Llewellyn

(Prime Books, $17.95, trade paperback, 271 pages, published 2005.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanUgli is a beggar in the Mavrosopolis, a soot-blackened city patrolled by teams of thawers and dessicators who work to remove all moisture from the buildings and streets, to keep the city dry, stable, unchanging. He is approached one day by a man who invites him to join the patrols, to undertake an apprenticeship with a view to becoming a respectable Mavrosopolitan. But this is just the first step on the city's social ladder, and Ugli's mysterious sponsor is prepared to back him all the way...

An author photo of Bryn Llewellyn appears on the back cover of this book, top-hatted and cadaverous. The Rat and the Serpent simply appeared one day in my postbox -- how did he know? There's no biog, although there are a few choice details on his website (www.brynllewellyn.co.uk) -- I'm glad he's had this gothic urban fantasy novel to occupy his evenings. "Imagine a novel written in black-and-white," the blurb tells us -- what we're being invited to read here is a sort of livre noir, black-and-white in the cinematic sense. A novel literally without colour. And Llewellyn has been thorough about this -- not only is no colour beyond the monochrome named, all things and substances in the book (most notably food) have been carefully chosen for their blackness, whiteness or greyness. Characters dine on "goat's cheese, olives and rice, mushrooms fried in squid ink," for example. It's an original reading experience, a rich and velvety kind of monochrome.

At first this appears to be a tale about social responsibility, with Ugli the beggar (or "nogoth" -- did I mention this book was a little bit gothic?) having to do his bit for the city if he wants to call himself "citidenizen". He also has something to teach his peers and supervisors -- Ugli has a withered leg, and is a shaman of the black rat, and both his disability and his humble totem animal are cause for mockery from those who don't want to see him succeed. But it becomes clear that in fact Llewellyn wants to say something about hierarchical power structures, because no sooner does Ugli achieve the status of "citidenizen" than he discovers that this social stratum is presided over by the "counsellords", and that above them sit "elitistors"... Each group is smaller and more privileged than (and further removed from) the last, handing down legislation that they receive from above, but none of them ultimately empowered to change anything. Ugli has a vision of a fairer city, but he stands no chance of implementing his reforms if he can't appeal directly to the power at the heart of the city, which doesn't even understand the common people he stands for.

The people he meets along the way are not written in black and white, but in shades of grey, each with their own peculiar motivations. There is Zveratu (now there's a loaded name), the shadowy man who urges Ugli on his journey, seemingly benevolent. There is Raknia, a shaman of the spider (black widow, naturally) who tries to turn Ugli's quest to her own purpose. There is Atavalens, Ugli's rival and a shaman of the panther. Of course, this book isn't called The Rat and the Panther, it's called The Rat and the Serpent, and Atavalens isn't the only unpleasant obstacle between Ugli and his goal.

There's much more I'd like to say about this novel, but dare not for fear of spoiling too much. The Rat and the Serpent is an extraordinary debut from a dark imagination.

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