Rat’s Reputation, by Michael H. Payne – Book Review by Fred Patten.
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Rat’s Reputation, by Michael H. Payne. Illustrated by Louvelex.
St. Paul, MN, Sofawolf Press, July 2015, trade paperback $19.95 (viii + 359 pages).
To pat myself on the back, when I edited the first anthology of anthropomorphic short fiction from pioneering furry fanzines of the late 1980s and 1990s (2003), the earliest story that I chose was Michael H. Payne’s “Rat’s Reputation” from FurVersion #16, May 1989. Rat’s Reputation the novel is Payne’s fixup and expansion of his “Around About Ottersgate” short fiction featuring Rat and his neighbors of the animal community of Ottersgate and environs. It’s his second novel in the “Around About Ottersgate” world, following The Blood Jaguar (Tor Books, December 1998; reprinted Sofawolf Press, June 2012).
“The rustling grew louder, seemed to come closer, and Alphonse [a gypsy squirrel] stopped as the ground started to shake.
An earthquake? He’d been through a couple when the caravan traveled out west, but here?
The shaking grew more violent with each passing second, and he was huddling down, glad he was out in the woods where nothing could really fall on him, when with a crash like a landslide, something tore out of the ground ahead, molten rock fountaining all fire-red and ash-black up over his head to smash into the trees, cracking and falling in a perfect circle around the pit of lava that yawned open, a sudden sulfurous stink plastering Alphonse’s face.
Then everything froze, Alphonse blinking to clear his eyes, a lumpy mass of darkness rising from the pit, its vast golden eyes swinging around to fix on Alphonse. The silence went on and on until a voice spoke, soft and rough as a step into sandy soil: ‘I reckon you know who I am, son.’
Alphonse could only nod.” (p. 7)
When the High Ones call you, you come. When the High Ones give you a duty, you do that duty. Alphonse’s duty is to find the baby rat on the streambank and raise him up. Except that the rat isn’t a baby; he’s four years old.
The story skips to when Rat is an adolescent. He’s miserable. He doesn’t have a name; the gypsy squirrels consider him unique enough among them that Rat is sufficient. He can’t talk High Sciurid properly; his mouth is shaped wrong:
“He tried to say ‘beautiful,’ but as usual his tongue got in the way of his teeth, making him cringe with sudden pain.” (p. 17)
He gets blamed for everything. Mostly it’s prejudice due to the bad reputation that rats have always had:
“She gave a sniff. ‘Rats are nothing but pirates and thieves; my daddy and all my storybooks say so.’” (p. 33)
Rat’s Reputation covers most of Rat’s very confused growing up. Since he’s an orphan raised at different times by squirrels and mice, is he a squirrel, or a mouse, or a rat, or none of the above; in which case, what is he? Since nobody likes him. why did a High One save him? Those who have read The Blood Jaguar know that Rat does make three close friends – well, two friends and an acquaintance – Fisher, Skink, and Bobcat. This tells how he meets them.
Rat’s Reputation is variously a religious experience, a psychological exploration, a romance, a murder mystery, a tragicomedy, a coming of age narrative, and a travelogue. Payne’s writing is in the mystic tradition of Kenneth Grahame’ The Wind in the Willows. Is the animal cast wearing clothes or in their natural fur, feathers, and scales? Do they live in urban-style buildings or in burrows and nests? The combination comes across as less of an inconsistency than as a rich and exotic blend.
In one of the novel’s longer passages, “Roaming” (pages 131 to 239), Rat goes into a seven-year self-imposed exile from Ottersgate; a walkabout that takes him throughout the world. This review is being written less than a month before the release of Disney’s Zootopia, and there is considerable speculation in furry fandom of what a large city designed for all species of animals will look like. Rat’s Reputation presents a whole WORLD designed for all species of animals.
“Rat thanked her, tied the pouch around his neck, and left by the back door. A block and a half brought him to a second-hand shop, and he spent most of the coins on two vests – one black and the other green plaid – three faded bandannas, and an oilskin backpack.
They helped him blend in, but … more than just these strange new rats, there were more different sorts of folks here than he had ever seen in one place before in his life. Skiffs and lighters sliding in and out of the docks; buildings of wood and brick and stone packed along the waterfront walk and every side street; fish and spices and the massed exhalations of so many lungs: it all made him a little dizzy. If he hadn’t been heading somewhere, he might’ve stopped, but …” (p. 195)
“Even at double speed it took two days to cross the place, but at last the pampas began to give way, sandy soil here and there, spreading, taking over, the wagons emerging into the desert. Cheering, the haulers let their chant fly, the ramparts of the Dyhari mountains growing from nubs to spikes to full-fledged peaks over the next few hours, the walls and towers of Kazirazif nestled against the foothills.
Meerkats with capes, hats, and spears stopped them at the city’s south gate, checked their paperwork, and guided the wagons through the narrow streets to the marketplace in the square outside the caliph’s palace. ‘Right, then!’ AlTrent [the fox wagonmaster] yelled. ‘Tayo, the ropes!’” (pgs. 225-226)
Rat’s Reputation has a wraparound cover and ten full-page interior illustrations by Louvelex, who also did the art for the Sofawolf Press edition of Payne’s The Blood Jaguar. The two books make an attractive matched pair. Both are among the very best of anthropomorphic literature.