The Wizard and the Rat by Aaron C. Engler

As a fan of Victorian and neo-Victorian settings which depict oppressive urban squalor, I liked this book. That is to say… I wanted to like this book. I liked some of the characters and I liked some of the scenes, and I was impressed by the quality of the writing in places, but too often I felt like I was being led away from the story’s strongest points in favor of fleeting distractions.

An example of this would be the telling of the story’s two titular characters, the Wizard and the Rat. Either of them alone would have been a protagonist compelling enough to carry this tale along, and together they end up carrying the narrative, but that requires roughly one-quarter of the book’s length to set up. The first 100 pages are a dizzying dance card of shifting character perspectives, often exacerbated by sudden flashbacks, dream sequences, and extended internal monologues.

Both of these characters have a tendency to daydream or get distracted, a problem only hampered further by the author’s eagerness to keep adding new characters, locations, or concepts to the story with little introduction. Is that an advanced spacefaring alien race? Maybe! We don’t really know, do we. Does that piece of important-seeming plot gristle just tossed onto the reader’s plate actually impact the course of events in any way? Who knows, who cares! Here, have another prolonged flashback.

The pity of this is that, when motivated enough to care, the author has quite the talent for describing detail. The problems arise from the fact that he seems to have so little interest in doing so. The act of laying a stable, coherent foundation for the reader to grab onto seems secondary to the impulse of leaping up to grab whatever thought seems most striking in the moment. This creates a frantic, breathless kind of hopscotch from concept to concept, epiphany to epiphany.

An example: early in the story, our young urchin protagonist (Rat) is gazing up at the sky from a rooftop. The reader is treated to several paragraphs of internally monologued exposition regarding the character’s feelings and memories about that sky, but only after all that’s done do we get a brief, passing description of what the sky actually looks like to the observer.

This is one of the book’s refrains: the external world is often discussed, but seldom as anything more than a backdrop to the passion play of the two leading men. One of the story’s main environments is an industrial slum, its factories are mentioned more than once early on, but they’re never actually shown. Rat spends a fair amount of time scampering around the city, and the gloomy spectre of industry often looms large in the background… but it almost never shows its face.

We see the sadness, we hear about all the misery, but where’s the belching smoke? The coal cinders? There’s a brief mention of ash and smog early on, but the grime of the slums seems to exist only in the hearts of its denizens. No mention of soot in the air comes again until page 146, and that’s only a brief mention of what the air outside of the city is like without it.

So… what was the air of the city like with it? When the protagonists pass through a hub called River Junction, the river is described as being both central to the hub and filled with poison. No mention is made of what that poison is, what the color or smell of the water is, how high it is, what purpose it serves, etc. It’s just another detail, invoked in passing and left behind just the same.

These are the details which stick in my craw because, in my opinion, the story is at its best when it commits to a location and a steady cast. The author has some potential for creating characters, the Vermin (urchins)can be touchingly human in their own base way. Rat’s personal journey is far more interesting than the multiplicity of high concept intrusions battling for the reader’s attention. When that character is on the prowl, just being Rat, the narrative is at its best. It moves along at a good clip, it’s rich with detail and pathos, and the story requires little external reinforcement to be interesting. Sadly, these moments are few and far between, quickly overtaken by long fits of narrative exposition.

I was more engaged by Rat’s struggles to survive on the streets of Haven than I was by his attempts to save the world. I wanted to learn more about his crew of fellow orphans than I did about the cast of ancillary wizards and assassins propping up the main plot. More than anything, I wanted to see and feel more of this world. There’s a short scene with a back alley drug dealer that was one of the story’s best works of conversational dialogue. Some of Rat’s memories of lost love, and the humble-but-grim threats of life on the street, do a lot to humanize the character, and bring some much-needed focus to the story. There are genuine moments of gold here, buried under all the exposition.

The Wizard and the Rat shines most as a gritty, character-driven tale of survival and personal growth in the face of abject hopelessness. If the author had spilled more ink framing that struggle by bringing the world around it to life – rather than always reaching out for the next big thing – I wouldn’t have as much to complain about as I do. Maybe I’m just resentful. The author shows his capacity for a deft touch, and there were moments that truly moved me, and so I can’t help wondering what might have been if a little more restraint had been shown.

To me, there was more magic in the Tower of Ruin, last refuge of the orphans, than in all the wizards’ city of Tandos.

Final score: 3/5. Reviewed by Eric Kandel.