It was almost a year ago that Lee Battersby completely blew me away with The Corpse-Rat King, an extremely funny, extraordinarily imaginative tale that I thoroughly enjoyed, and have gleefully recommended over and over again. I've been waiting for the follow-up almost from the moment I turned the last page, and I'm pleased to say The Marching Dead was definitely worth the wait.
In a slightly more mature sequel, Battersby eases up a bit on the slapstick and reigns in the bizarre sense of adventure, but still maintains the same imaginative literary sense of the macabre that made the first book such a success. We pick up the story of Marius dos Helles a few years later, with our reluctant hero relaxing at home with the love of his life - except, of course, for when he's shifting back into dead flesh and stealing into town for a drink. Before long, however, that boringly idyllic life is brought to a screeching halt when Keth is dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of the dead, and Marius finds himself on the wrong end of Drenthe's sword . . . again.
Cue the return of Gerd, who is given a chance to rise above his minor sidekick role to become a main character, and his Granny, who is very much dead, but still looking after her favourite boy. As Gerd explains to Marius, "We buried Granny in the village graveyard. After a week, she dug herself out and came to me for answers." I thought Gerd was underused in the first book, so it was nice to see him have a chance to shine here. Not only does he stand up to Marius and hold his own, but he sticks with the man who led him to his death, browbeating him into doing the right thing more than once. As for Granny, her sharp-witted nastiness serves as a welcome foil for both men.
Whereas the first book was all about Marius trying to find new ways to duck his responsibilities, and new (dead) people to thrust those responsibilities upon, this book is very much about him confronting his past and claiming the destiny he escape first time around - albeit reluctantly. Battersby reveals the man behind the corpse, introducing us to his parents, and providing some insight into why his life of privilege ended with him robbing corpses on a battlefield. It makes for a more sombre and serious tale, at least in parts, but the added depth is very much appreciated.
There are more than a few new characters here to love, including Brys (the sexy Pirate with the ample bosom), Fellipan (the dead sexy bordello Mistress with the ample bosom), and Arnobew (the madman with a cardboard sword). It's definitely a more well-rounded cast than in the first book, and four-sided love triangle between Marius, Keth, Brys, and Fellipan is both a lot of fun and source of surprising sorrow by the end. The visual depiction of Fellipan is about as over-the-top erotic as they come, and her personality delivers on that dangerous premise, even as she assures Marius that it's not necrophilia if they're both dead.
Once again, Battersby absolutely nails the narrative style, balancing humour and horror, fantasy and felony. It's another quick-moving, well-written story that amuses, excites, and concludes with some rather deep, and remarkably heavy musings on the subjects of life, death, and the afterlife - or the lack thereof. Some readers may be a tad offended by the nunnery to which Marius' mother has retired, having been home to "celebrated healers, whores, and the occasional holy woman," but the practicality of hedging their bets against shifts in mythology is to be admired. I wasn't quite sure where the story was headed, and I appreciated the way it kept me guessing, and managed to surprise me, without making me feel cheated.
I suspect - or maybe just desperately hope - that is not the end for Marius and Gerd but, if it is, then I can walk away with no complaints. The Corpse-Rat King and The Marching Dead make for an entirely satisfying duology, firmly establishing Marius dos Helles as one of the finest - and funniest - reluctant heroes in the history of fantasy. If you enjoyed the first one, you'll love this one too, and if you have yet to enjoy the first one . . . well, what the heck are you waiting for?
Expected publication: March 26th 2013 by Angry Robot
Paperback, 416 pages