Rats is rats.
Dogboy lives in the dump with his best friend Caz. He earns pennies to feed them both by assisting the rat-catcher Bill Grubstaff. When he is offered work by a local scientist, he is soon drawn into a plot to declare war on rats. Below ground the rats are mourning the loss of their king and preparing to crown his successor. Young taster Efren, goes against the rules of the kingdom and follows his old king above ground, only to witness his capture and resulting torture. By the very man now employing Dogboy. As their two worlds cross paths, both sides are preparing to do battle.
Never has the death of rats been so upsetting. The dual narrative of The Twyning means the story is told from both human and rodent perspectives and boy, are those perspectives different. I loved the contrast in perception between the two. Above ground rats are a problem and killing them a normal every day act. Even our human protagonist is an assistant to a rat-catcher but he is never portrayed as evil. Down below, the rats see humans as the enemy (rightly so) but they also have their own social structure and governance. Their society is shown not to be better than humanity but in parallel to it. One regime may be fair and just but the next is corrupt and oppressive.
I found the rats remained rattish throughout. To get round communication problems, Blacker has made them communicate through a form of telepathy (hey, we can’t prove otherwise and real rats do use a supersonic form of communication). So no, there are not really talking rats, something their anatomy wouldn’t allow. Even their “pulse” is a real thing, a distress signal that rats send out when they need help. OK I’m starting to become fascinated by rats now!
It was interesting to see that the idea stemmed from scientific study into whether rats possess empathy. The actual study involved a rat freeing another from a Perspex box. Where there was also chocolate available in another box, the rescuer would still free the rat first and then share the chocolate, even going so far as to carry the treats over to the distressed rat! Scientists may argue over the motive for this but I think it shows that rats are capable of acting better than some humans. And that is something that’s important to the novel.
At times the tone becomes a little like a children’s book. It is certainly not aimed at children; there’s plenty of violence and at least one scene that can only be described as gruesome. Maybe it’s the effects of having a rat as a narrator, who is intelligent in his own way but maybe not to the standard of a human adult.
The Twyning expresses life’s mystery. Unable to move in any direction except at an awkward, complicated shuffle, it has its own kind of strength, for nothing terrifies a human more than the sight of rats, helpless, bound together, yet powerful.
Above all, it shows the power of the kingdom.
For it is love which keeps The Twyning alive.
The Twyning of the title is what is called a rat king in the real world. I don’t think I quite understood what it was at first, imagining a sort of conjoined twin. A rat king is a litter of rats who join together at their tails, whether tangled up or through layers of dirt (and worse). These groups can have up to 30 rats bound together! Later on, it does become clearer (and actually re-reading the first chapter, I’m not sure why I didn’t pick up on it). I’m not sure if googling it is beneficial; there is a scary mummified rat king in a German museum which doesn’t quite fit the tone of the book. The Twyning is seen as some sort of sacred animal treated with respect and consulted on matters of importance to the kingdom. However you perceive the creature, its significance is felt and I did find myself worrying about it at several points.
Whilst there were aspects that weren’t perfect, I really rather enjoyed this unique and entertaining tale. I found myself tearing up in places and cheering on the rat army in others. If you have ever looked in a rat’s eye and seen a spark of intelligence, you will love this book.
The Twyning is published by Head of Zeus and is now available in hardback and ebook formats. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.