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Ratpaths (Tales of Istonnia Book 1) Kindle Edition
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I think the only way Nivvo could be described is as a cheeky rascal. He’s just that sort of lovable scamp, who might have a somewhat dark side to him but for the most part is honest in his own way.
The city is living under the thumb of a tyrant who had Nivvo’s father killed when he was but a child, and sent him to the streets. The only reason he is alive is that the lord of the underworld took a liking to him...
The story comes to a satisfying end, yet there is obviously more to come.
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 his skills learnt 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 to read, but it's hard to tell if he's brave or a bit mad. It'd sometimes 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 convincingly 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 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 spoilt 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.
I don't often enjoy historical fiction but I just couldn't put this book down. The story was told brilliantly, with well defined characters and believable plot twists. This definitely isn't your typical fantasy tale. It has a gritty realism to it and some violent things happened, yet it never quite falls into the dark fantasy category and it would be suitable for young adult readers. The characters stories have their heart-breaking moments and there is a lot of dark material in there but there's also a very good sense of humour.
I liked all the references to fire in the character's dialog exchanges, it made for unusual and interesting conversations! The setting felt totally unique and the world Rusk has created felt solidly built and real. I sympathised easily with Nivvo, he was an excellent character and I can't wait to see what's next for him.
A brilliant debut novel I would recommend to just about everyone. I'll admit the cover put me off to begin with, but Ratpaths is truly a well-woven story with a unique setting and fantastic characters. It's not YA but would be suitable for older teenagers as well as adults. Highly recommended!
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