Reviewed by Lucy Middlemass
Ratpaths is a magic-free young adult fantasy story about loyalty, freedom and dynasty.
Nivvo, a young thief, discovers the long dead heir to the throne is actually alive and needs rescuing from some sea-fairing kidnappers. The narration moves between Nivvo’s quest to save and reinstate the heir, and the story of his own early life.
Nivvo frees Vilores from his captors and leads him to a fragile kind of safety. He uses skills learned as a pickpocket to guide him through the city’s twisting, hidden ratpaths, but it’s the unravelling of Nivvo’s own dark story that provides the surprises in the plot.
It’s obvious that the author likes her characters, particularly Nivvo. He’s definitely “One spark short of a bonfire.” He’s fun and unpredictable, but it’s hard to tell if he’s brave or a bit mad. It’d be easier to understand him if this were clearer. The other characters, from the Fagan-like mafia boss Cambrosi to sweet and capable little sister Reka are well-developed.
The themes might be traditional but the setting is unusual, and much of it is imagined and constructed skilfully. Although the story is largely not supernatural, ghosts and the dead appear frequently in characters’ thoughts and dialogue. This, for me, is one of the most successful aspects of the book. The existence of Nivvo’s wider world is created by characters’ references to their beliefs and superstitions. A whole culture is economically brought into being in their dialogue, as they continually express their disbelief with phrases like, “I’ll be buried” or insult each other as “ghostless fools.”
There are some unnecessary errors in the text, and there is a gradually distracting oddness that the young characters are always “lads” or “lasses.” Many of the characters have a name and a title, and are referred to variously. This is confusing, especially in the beginning.
Occasional appealing writing, like the moment Nivvo reveals himself to his sister in the first chapter “A shadow detached itself from the wall”, is spoiled by its repetition later in the book.
As a young adult book, Ratpaths might be better suited to the older reader. The plot is slow to start rather than complex, but issues like suicide and pregnancy resulting from rape indicate the limits of its audience. This suggests a possible mis-match between the tone and the content. For example, I was delighted when Nivvo’s plan to free himself from one of his captors became comically violent, “He got up without a sound, turned to the sleeping young woman and hit her over the head (with a short, thick branch)” but there’s an inconsistency with the much darker themes. I wasn’t always persuaded the story has sufficient breadth for both.
It’s worth reading to discover a world with a believable history and religion, double-crossing characters and a twisty-turny story.