The Rat And The Serpent
Imagine a film made in black-and-white. Now imagine a novel written in black-and-white.
The Rat And The Serpent is a gothic tale relating the extraordinary fate of Ügliy the cripple. Raised as a beggar in the soot-shrouded Mavrosopolis, Ügliy has to scramble for scraps of food in the gutter if he is to survive. But one day his desperation and humiliation is noticed by the mysterious Zveratu, and soon he is taking his first faltering steps into the world of the citidenizens. He meets the seductive Raknia and the arrogant Atavalens; one destined to be his lover, the other his mortal enemy. But as Ügliy ascends he becomes aware of a darkness at the heart of the city in which he lives. Slowly, he realises that the Mavrosopolis exists gloomy and forbidding around a terrible secret…
The Rat And The Serpent is a dark phantasmagoria related entirely in monochrome. Read this and enter a world portrayed as never before in the field of fantastic literature.
A short film about the novel here.
(US Publishers Weekly)
In Llewellyn’s solid if unoriginal dark fantasy set in the Mideastern-flavored futuristic city of Mavrosopolis, Ugli, a crippled rat shaman, aims to rise above his station as a “nogoth,” i.e., a street person, and to right the wrongs he sees in the sooty metropolis. While Ugli faces implacable foes, chiefly the serpent shaman Herpetzag, he can turn to such allies as his mentor, the old man Zveratu, and his mother, Astarta. Despite periodic visits by wraiths intoning solemn warnings of doom, Ugli overcomes one imaginative material or magical obstacle after another. (One of the city’s labor groups, the Dessicators, removes surplus water from ruins, and Ugli devises a way of filling magic wands with tons of water and then rolling them into the sea.) Readers won’t be surprised by the outcome of Ugli’s final showdown with Herpetzag, as the plot follows a pattern familiar from a thousand folk tales and as many fantasy novels. In addition, some may wonder why Ugli is the first nogoth to devise a system of upward mobility. Still, the vividly depicted grim urban setting and numerous absorbing secondary characters keep the pages turning.
The Rat And The Serpent is set in the city of Mavrosopolis, although it is known by many other names by different strata of society. Our hero, Ugli, is a “Nogoth”, a homeless beggar with no civil rights. Although a cripple, he is possessed of considerable self-confidence, the powers of a rat shaman, and the guiding hand of the mysterious sage, Zveratu. Ugli decides that he will attempt to take the test to become a “citidenizen” so that he can have a home and a job. Thus begins his ascent through the social structure of the city, and our discovery of its true nature.
The best thing about the book is the city itself. I loved the idea of an ancient metropolis, covered in soot, whose rulers employ teams of people to scour it for water, wind and ice so as to prevent any of its structure being eroded. On the other hand, I have to say that words like Mavrosopolis and citidenizen do not exactly trip off the tongue. Unlike the last Prime book I reviewed, Catherynne M. Valente’s The Labyrinth, which positively sits up and begs to be read aloud, The Rat and the Serpent skulks in the shadows where it hopes no one will speak it.
More generally I’m not sure that Llewellyn ever got a handle on whether he was writing an allegory or an alternate world fantasy. With a lead character who is a beggar called Ugli the reader automatically expects an allegory. In addition the descriptions of Mavrosopolis are sometimes so cartoon-like in their portrayal of evil that the book feels more like Pilgrim’s Progress than a fantasy novel. But the book has many of the elements of traditional mythic fantasy, so presumably the world is supposed to be taken seriously.
It is the mythic fantasy angle that worries me most about the book. As you will have noticed from the plot summary above, the book is a classic “Lost Prince” tale. Ugli is clearly fated to take on the moral failings of Mavrosopolis and win. And so he does, very easily. This is not a book like Perdido Street Station that attempts to teach lessons about real world politics in a fantastical setting. It is more like The Book of the New Sun with most of the convoluted Wolfe puzzles and obfuscations removed and a wizardly guru added to help Severian out of any trouble he might get into on his way to becoming Autarch as the plot requires it.
That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Mythic fantasy has a long and honorable tradition. What worries me about The Rat and the Serpent is that the “wrongness” in the world that Ugli seeks to redress is nothing to do with the divine right of kings, the health of the Land, or any of the usual things that mythic fantasy addresses. Rather Ugli is fighting very real problems such as social injustice and corruption.
I am reminded of the two different approaches to alchemy during the Renaissance. Some alchemists were happy to see their craft purely as a spiritual journey; with the various chemical transformations they performed being an allegory for the development of the soul. Others genuinely believed that they could turn base metals into gold, and it was those alchemists who ended up getting executed by disappointed kings and emperors.
Mythic fantasy clearly has a place in literature, and there are things that it does very well. But it would be foolish of us to believe that the rightness of our cause can cure all of the ills of the real world. You won’t find China Miéville introducing a Lost Prince who will save New Crobuzon from Evil. Indeed, much of the point of Iron Council was to say that such romanticism is hopelessly naïve. So although Llewellyn has his heart very much in the right place, the message he sends is nothing more than a comforting fantasy. It has no bearing on practical politics.
Here again I have gone off at one of those tangents where a philosophical aspect of a book has caught my interest. Doubtless this will once again have been hugely annoying to those people who believe that fiction is fiction and not supposed to “mean” anything. But I’m rather more concerned about Bryn Llewellyn because The Rat and the Serpent is a better book than I have probably made it sound in this review. It has some interesting ideas, a new take on the cityscape, and some lovely imagery. And any book that causes me to think so much about its intentions has to be worth a read.
Di Filippo is also remembered as one of the progenitors of the “steampunk” genre, with his ‘Steampunk Trilogy’ held as one the starting points. Now, some ten years after the appearance of Di Filippo’s book, Prime brings us Bryn Llewellyn’s The Rat and the Serpent. Llewellyn’s gritty, grim tale concerns the travails of Ugli the Cripple. His life as a beggar in the city of Mavrosopolis is not a happy one. Struggling for scraps of food in the gutter, fighting off adversaries from shape-shifting snakes to members of the citidenizenry, Ugli is taken under the protection of Zveratu. One might imagine that the heart of Mavrosopolis is not a happy place, and Ugli, if he does not in fact exemplify said heart, will stare deeply into it by the end of the novel.
The Rat and the Serpent claims to be a novel written in black and white, which, the wry might observe, is not particularly uncommon. But it claims to be a novel written in black and white in the same way that a movie is filmed in black-and-white, and that indeed is both uncommon and borne out by the crisp prose.
What might not be so clear is that this steampunk scenario has a heavy science fictional backbeat. Mavrosopolis is not be found in some forgotten nineteenth-century English backwater. You’re going to have to hop in Wells’ time machine and press the forward button to get there, I do believe.
Ugli 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… “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.
(Goodreads, Jay Batson):
The Rat And The Serpent is a treat to read. His writing proceeds at such a good clip. The stories have a rhythm that seems to flow just perfectly; the stories all seem to accelerate as his books proceed to conclusion, and this book is no exception. But along the way, the comfortable start and cruise through his imagination is a fun ride to be on.
The Rat and the Serpent describes a world that is both fantasy, and simultaneously a world we recognize. We see in it bureaucracy alongside people who aspire to break free of it. The city itself is a character, old, covered in soot, yet alive and an active character in the story. There are flawed participants, and even more deeply flawed heroes.
It’s got Palmer’s normal “willing to bend reality to fit the story”, too. While set in a byzantine earth, there are elements of the story that could only be described as fantasy – which give him the freedom to tell a fanciful, and fun story.
There’s a clear hint that Stephen is poking a stick in the eye of governance. All along the way, I kept repeating to myself the best phrase from one of Douglass Adams’ excellent Hitchhikers Guide books (The Restaurant at the end of the Universe to be precise):
To summarize: it is a well-known fact, that those who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.
Well, at the end of The Rat and the Serpent it wasn’t people who were the problem precisely, but I’m sure the story in the book is a perfectly fine allegory for People being a Problem in reality.
Again, this was another fine read by Mr. Palmer. Hopefully he gets done with scanning in & publishing his old, out-of-print but soon-to-be-electronic books, and writes us something new. 🙂
(Goodreads, J.L. Dobias)
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.
original cover as ‘Bryn Llewellyn’
Reading this in 2019, it struck me as a very current satire of social networks and how they change our perception of the less fortunate “offline” people who become increasingly invisible to us, and the “influencers” who manifest ethereally to command us while flaunting unearned wealth, with appearance and popularity deciding one’s stratum and an obsessive focus on preserving moments over living them.
Then I considered that it was written before any of those networks existed, so now I’m wondering if I’ve just wildly misinterpreted the metaphor or if you were being prophetic?
It is an appropriate metaphor in many ways, as the rise of algorithms and social media is having a profoundly destablising effect – making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Although the nogoths seems to be dispossessed, in fact it’s more that they believe what everybody else says about them. Thus, when Ugliy rises up the hierarchy, his perception of other classes changes…
Thanks for the prompt reply!
I actually started reading your books over 20 years ago when I picked up Glass in a local bookshop, but none of the others made it onto the shelves here in Australia and after a while I assumed you’d stopped writing. It was only after getting an e-reader for Christmas that I found all the later titles, and I’ve been going through them more or less in order since then.
‘Glass’ was my second novel, and won’t make any sense until you’ve read ‘Memory Seed’ ! The conclusion is ‘Flowercrash’. Glad to hear you’re enjoying my novels! 🙂