The dust jacket calls The Twyning "A story of love, war and rats," which makes it some of the most baldly accurate dust jacket copy I have ever read. The Twyning is a story told by two first-person narrators: Efren, a young rattus norvegicus and member of the kingdom of rats, and "Dogboy," an outcast bastard of the (human) gentry in a town presumed to be London around the turn of the twentieth century. Rats such as Efren communicate amongst themselves by "revelation" (telepathy) and are part of a caste society divided into "courts": warriors, historians, spies, etc. Dogboy, meanwhile, works as a rat-catcher.
Onwards cometh the conflict. Efren's kingdom is subjected to a "war on rats," an extermination campaign spearheaded by one of Dogboy's casual employers, Dr. Ross-Gibbon, who has an absolute hatred of rattus norvegicus and believes that their plague-ridden nature spells doom for humanity if the human body politic fails to act first. Ross-Gibbon eventually ropes in Dogboy's other employer, a professional rat-catcher named Bill, as well as the local member of parliament and a whole gang of "setters": men who train dogs to kill rats in pit fights. As the war escalates, Dogboy is exposed to the rats' ability to communicate telepathically, and, although he cannot initially believe it, this experience eventually convinces him of the wrongness of the war, and causes him to help the rats instead.
Beneath the sidewalks, Efren's kingdom is falling apart: the king dies and the monarchy is overthrown by a cabal of revolutionary young rats, which leads to show trials, figurehead rulers, thuggery, and all other manner of despotic machination. Efren is pushed and pulled between rival factions, offered power before becoming the target of assassination attempts, and finally escapes into the world of humans when Dr. Ross-Gibbon's war on rats, in the form of poison gas, shatters the realm.
And, of course, love stories: Dogboy's companion Caz is kidnapped and must be rescued, and Efren falls in love with a "fancy" (domesticated) rat named Malaika but can't convince her to join him in the kingdom below—a sort of "downtown came uptown" situation (except downtown is kind of a jerk about it and thinks uptown is mentally perverted by her pampered "human" lifestyle).
If I had to qualify it quickly, I would say that there is a sort of inestimable cuteness to this book. There is little quite as charming as talking animals, especially ones that have complex inner lives and political struggles. Blacker's writing makes his unnamed city come to life with an economy of words: that it is London we know intimately even if it's never named and even if we've never been there. It has both depth and breadth with, it seems, little effort on the part of the author: he pulls in threads that make it breathe deeply. The Twyning actually feels more like a fantasy because of this sparkling, easy, big-city quality than, y'know, the talking rats.
This book is, in many ways, pleasantly stereotypical, and the London-that-shall-not-be-named is just the beginning. The Twyning's themes, in particular, are quite conventionally noble. In its four-hundred-odd pages, author Terence Blacker grapples with some profound ideas: violent extermination, the march to war, republicanism versus kingship, and the struggle between personal life and the exigencies of the body politic all feature in this story. But despite that The Twyning tries hard, and that I always appreciate an earnest effort, none of these obviously heavy themes are resolved in a satisfying way, and much of the potentially instructive, certainly meditative, and possibly philosophical material of the novel is undermined by inadequate characterization and all too convenient twists that seem designed to neatly cleave to plot points before all other considerations.
I liked that Blacker pushed some of his themes to extreme and surprising reaches. The war on rats, for example, has a most devious note of genocide. But I was frequently frustrated by the lack of nuance with which Blacker presented the story's themes. For example, we never learn why Dr. Ross-Gibbon is so hellbent on exterminating rats. Is it a lust for power? For prestige? Is he afraid of rats? Does he just hate rodents? The arguments the doctor makes to his fellow citizens center on the disease-ridden nature of rats, but no actual disease problem is observed among the people of the novel. Maybe I'm getting way too serious here, but I was reminded of Hannah Arendt's characterization of Adolf Eichmann as personifying "the banality of evil," which you might say is being evil for the most boring reasons or through the most boring processes. (Eichmann, for example, didn't seem to have any particular hatred for Jews; he was just a rather good bureaucrat.) In The Twyning, only evil that exists without good reason can explain the horrifying lengths to which the doctor will go to destroy the rats.
Neither is the doctor the only example. At one point, Caz, Dogboy's street-kid companion and a former dance student, is kidnapped by a genteel pervert who likes to watch the girl dance and keeps her locked in a hole in the floor. Elsewhere, in the kingdom of rats, the usurper Swylar tortures and condemns his enemies without any particular reason (there's no organized resistance to his tyranny), and doesn't even seem to have a reason to want to be a usurper: given the chance, he just lies in a pile of rats and sleeps. Sexual violence and political injustice are two themes that might have been far more effectively discussed if they'd been based on motivation instead of the need for plot points, or if these people had even the slightest depth to them and their evil could be seen in the light of those depths. Instead, these themes end at the surface: their evil exists so that the story might be told, rather than the story existing because their evil predates the telling.
The same lack of depth exists for the love stories explored in The Twyning. Efren quite literally sees Malaika and falls in love; Malaika returns this love; and their love is founded entirely on this act of always-already-being-in-love. I understand perfectly well the incomprehensibility of love: I couldn't tell you every nuance of what has made me and what continues to make me love my partner. But The Twyning makes this love occur so seamlessly and perfectly that it looks like a complete joke.
On top of the baselessness of Efren and Malaika's love, I began to find this storybook romance sickening when I realized that Malaika is an utterly passive character, good only for receiving Efren's "revelations" and begging him to love her and whatnot (you know, like how real girls really are in real life). Not to mention that the other female characters in this book are similarly worthless: Caz, like Malaika, exists to be an object of Dogboy's (albeit platonic) affections, and the only thing she manages to do in this story is hear the rats' revelations and pass the message along to Dogboy—right before she gets kidnapped. The other female characters are: a stand-in mother, a mother who cares more about her lover than her child, and—wait for it—prostitutes! Whenever I was reading about Caz and Malaika, I couldn't help but think of that Stella Artois ad that graffiti artists later altered: "She is a thing
Last but not least is the unfortunate turn of events that mars the kingship versus republicanism theme explored in The Twyning—yet another interesting theme that fails to deliver. At one point, Efren takes up the mantra that "every rat is a king" and begins rebuilding the kingdom on this foundation. Pretty neat, right? Ultimately, though, the rats are revealed to be unable to govern themselves democratically, communally, or any other way: they need a strong leader, and even though the one they choose is (thanks to Efren) benevolent, it kind of totally sucks as a way to turn the tale, especially when Efren puts it so much effort into his vision that "every rat is a king." Because, actually, no: only one rat is a king. The rest of you are moronic plebes.
There are other silly arbitrary resolutions to problems that demean the themes they begin with, like how Dogboy and Caz get adopted by a local business owner after the dump they live in gets burned down (as in, this woman is suddenly willing to act as their guardian because the heap of garbage they previously called home has been reduced to ashes), but if I go into all of them then you'll have no reason (or, fewer reasons) to read the book.
I really wanted to like The Twyning; I felt like it had a lot of potential. But I couldn't, because it undermined its own seriousness too much, made a buffoonery of its grittiness, and copped its resolutions out to neat twists and turns instead of giving us any powerful solutions that might make us cheer along with the protagonists or thump our fists in appreciation of a villain receiving their just due. In the end, there was nothing to feel really good about, and the stuff that might've made me satisfyingly despondent looked, in the final measure, like so many bad jokes.
Ben Godby writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs, and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.