Marius don Hellespont and his apprentice, Gerd, are professional looters of battlefields. When they stumble upon the corpse of the King of Scorby and Gerd is killed, Marius is mistaken for the monarch by one of the dead soldiers and is transported down to the Kingdom of the Dead.
Just like the living citizens, the dead need a King — after all, the King is God’s representative, and someone needs to remind God where they are.
And so it comes to pass that Marius is banished to the surface with one message: if he wants to recover his life he must find the dead a King. Which he fully intends to do.
Just as soon as he stops running away.
Lee Battersby is one of Australia’s leading speculative fiction authors with more than 70 short stories published across the globe. He’s also been at the helm of many of magazines as editor, including Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Midnight Echo, so he definitely knows what makes a great story.
His first novel, The Corpse-Rat King is the very definition of a great story; the perfect concoction of old world fantasy, intrigue, adventure and full-bodied characters that sweep you deeper into the story with each turn of the page.
I’m not an avid reader of fantasy books, but when I was presented with the opportunity to “beta-read” (sort of an advanced-advanced reader copy) I jumped at the chance simply because I knew it was Battersby. I’m glad I jumped.
The Corpse-Rat King centres on Marius Helles, a man who has made a living out of pillaging riches from fallen soldiers on battlefields throughout the war-torn realm of Scorby. But all that changes when Marius’ young apprentice is run through by a pair of soldiers who catch him the act. Instead of going to his charge’s aid, Marius plays dead amongst the other corpses and this act of cowardice brings Marius to their attention. The dead, mistakenly believing he is their king, issue a decree that Marius must deliver unto them a king and, to make sure that he does, they turn him into one of the living dead and so begins his quest.
From there, Battersby uses his exemplary world-building prowess to place us alongside Marius as he journeys across the kingdom in search of the seemingly impossible. With each step, we see Marius slowly realising his failures and flaws in life and his efforts to reconcile with the people he did wrong. If anything, Marius’s quest is secondary to the main plot, which is Marius coming to terms with the type of man he was in the past.
The realm of Scorby is a character in itself with Batterbsy offering the reader a richly detailed history of its kings, mythology, temples and taverns. While not as epic as Middle Earth (and it doesn’t pretend to be), it’s certainly a very realistic and memorable landscape.
But there are many good doses of adventure to be had in this novel. Some of my favourite scenes include Marius competing in a very unique and dangerous poker-style game in order to secure funds for a place on a boat and an underwater (yes underwater) meeting with a long dead, but still very mad, king and his favourite and also, long-dead horse. Batterbsy also adds a pinch of tongue-in-cheek humour to the mix, which only serves to make us sympathise with Marius even more.
The Corpse-Rat King is intended to be the first in a series of books and given the apparent finality of the ending, it will be very interesting to see where Battersby’s plans to take us with book two.
Lee Battersby is one of those writers which writers aspire to and with The Corpse-Rat King he has once again cemented that reputation. Highly Recommended.
- review by Greg Chapman