In Blanchard’s (Mourning Doves After the Fire, 2010) fantasy novel, a large rat colony is ruled by a good king until a rat soldier usurps power and the city hires exterminators.
“Life for the rats was always futile and wretched—an endless pursuit of something to eat.” That’s the case for even the best-run, safest refuges, such as the abandoned movie palace where Indio—a blind mole rat—has long ruled his huge colony. Most rats live only a few years but Indio is 30, giving him wisdom and experience in making rules, handling disputes, giving advice, and assigning punishments for sins such as shirking forage duties. Indio’s soldier rats provide enforcement; one is the high-ranking, ambitious Matthias. He dislikes Nicholas, Indio’s son and heir, and is determined to rule the colony himself someday, even though Hildegard, a fortuneteller rat, has warned him that he won’t live long. Matthias prepares an elaborate plan to surreptitiously eliminate the heir, which succeeds brilliantly; the unsuspecting Indio decides to make Matthias his new heir and guardian until Maxwell, his younger son, comes of age. Matthias repays his king by shoving him into an overflowing sewer, then taking over the colony and imposing draconian rules while ignoring duller responsibilities. He enjoys assigning punishments, though, including the most horrifying: being stuck to flypaper for three days. Soon the city goes to war against rats, giving the colony new survival challenges. Blanchard’s overcrowded animal colony ruled by an iron paw owes an obvious debt to the 1972 novel Watership Down by Richard Adams, to whom the book is dedicated. Like that author, he understands his characters as animals bound by their animal natures, which is a plus for the book as a whole. Blanchard has a harder task, though, because city rats just don’t have the inherent appeal of Watership Down’s wild rabbits: indeed, the huge colony is more than a little horrifying. The novel acknowledges this, but with scene after scene of brutal, bloody, meaningless deaths, Blanchard perhaps succeeds too well in illustrating the “futile and wretched” life of rats.
A depressing read, despite an ending that offers some triumph.