I say almost, because there is one thing that really is better - stumbling across an upcoming release from an author you've never read before, picking it up entirely on a whim, starting the read with absolutely nothing in the way of expectations, and being completely blown away. If the satisfaction is almost immeasurable, than the pleasure is completely immeasurable.
Such is the case with The Corpse-Rat King by Lee Battersby.
Not only did I have no expectations of this one, I wasn't even sure I'd have time to give it a read. It was one of the newest electronic ARCs available to the Robot Army, so I snagged it alongside Adam Christopher's Seven Wonders, figuring I'd give it a cursory glance if I happened to get through the other before September rolled around. It just so happened that I was between books last weekend and, completely on a whim, I decided to give it a shot.
I think I was about 10 pages in before I knew I had something special on my hands.
What Battersby has concocted here is equal parts Bruce Campbell slapstick, Monty Python absurdity, and Terry Gilliam imaginative wonder, filtered through the same literary sense of the macabre as Jesse Bullington or Neil Gaiman. It's an extremely funny, extraordinarily imaginative tale, that never stops surprising the reader with where it's going next. Really, it's one of those novels where the less you know going in, the better the reading experience is likely to be.
Marius is one of the unlikeliest heroes I have encountered in a very long time. He's a greedy, self-centred, cowardly bastard . . . who just so happens to be clever, amusing, and embarrassingly likable at the same time. He's the kind of guy who will gladly stand at your side in the face of imminent danger, but only so he can pick your pocket and knock you down at the last moment to expedite his own getaway. He is a scoundrel in every sense of the word, but an entirely pragmatic one. While he does develop significantly over the course of the novel, demonstrating a tenderness of heart and soul, he remains delightfully despicable throughout.
The writing (and storytelling) here is absolutely top notch. Battersby has a very intimate, very casual way of telling a story, one that's more conversational than literary. He's entirely aware of the absurdities of his tale, and makes no apologies for them. Whereas some authors try too hard to justify, explain, or otherwise validate the comic elements of their tale, Battersby is content to let the humour work. What's more, he proves himself equally adept at elaborate set pieces of slapstick humour, quick throwaway gags, and ridiculous asides.
There's a particularly prolonged sequence of events that involves Marius walking across the bottom of the sea, attempting to scale a submerged shipwreck, and desperately trying to reason with the skeleton of a king who was already crazy before he inadvertently merged the bones of his horse with his own. It's a scene that should have fallen apart and worn out its welcome long before the hungry shark appears on scene, but Battersby makes it work so well, it's a shame to see it come to an end .
Similarly, whereas the various tangents and asides should begin to wear away at the reader's patience, you can't help but gleefully anticipate the next one. It was these half-pages that so often had me laughing out loud, or at least visibly smirking with glee.
"Discovered less than four hundred years ago by the famous Tallian adventurer “Literal” Edmund Bejeevers, the Dog Crap Archipelago lay like a giant turd across the passage between Borgho City and the Faraway isles. Early explorers found nothing there to recommend the place to anybody, and indeed, early maps show a simple ovoid outline with the words “Don’t Bother” written inside."
Even the throwaway gags, such as the "Secret passage closed due to repair works" sign, work better than any author has any right to expect. It's all about the balance between the humour and the story, and the simultaneous commitment to both, that makes it work. Battersby never allows one to suffer at the expense of the other, and never forgets to involve the reader emotionally as well as intellectually.
This was a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and will gleefully recommend, without reservation. Of course, Battersby has now placed himself within the first scenario I mentioned, so here's hoping The Marching Dead manages to exceed my expectations as well as The Corpse-Rat King managed to blow me away.