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I promised myself that this time, I would go through Rats and Gargoyles at a leisurely pace and figure out exactly what happened. I failed once again: the book is too giddily chockful of enjoyable little vignettes and nuggets of description for me to take at a walk.

A world somewhat like our own is ruled over by living, corporeal, capricious gods, known as the Decans, who are served by ferocious winged demons known as Acolytes. Below them in the hierarchy, but above the humans (and humanoids - at least one other race is mentioned), are human-sized intelligent Rats. There are impressive magical powers based on Masonic principles, a University of Crime, an Invisible College, Human revolutionaries, Rat clerics, builders' apprentices in silk coveralls, ancient snake gods deep underground, tarot cards, five cardinal directions instead of four, a death cycle (like a life cycle, only the other way around), and more politics than you can shake a stick at - and somewhere in there, I think there may actually be a plot.

The book opens with Lucas, a Prince of Candover, starting a course of study at the aforementioned University of Crime in a cosmpolitan, Renaissance-ish city that seems to be the principal metropolis of this world. One of his fellow students is a Katayan, a humanoid race whose members are distinguished by their long, tufted, semi-prehensile tails. This young woman, Zar-bettu-zekigal (a/k/a Zari - although she loathes this nickname), is also in training to be a King's Memory: a mobile, sentient recording device. She and Lucas are both boarding at a home owned by a middle-aged woman named Evelian, whose other boarders include a handsome, mysterious red-headed woman known variously as Valentine or the White Crow, who keeps a number of wild animals (including a wolf) as pets and who seems to have arcane powers.

As we follow the students through their first days at school, we're only just beginning to get a feel for this odd, busy city when events start falling one atop t'other. While taking a shortcut, Lucas and Zari encounter a Rat Bishop, who has a mysterious task for the young Katayan. An assembly of University students is attacked by Acolytes, and Lucas barely survives. The revolutionaries, led by a woman who calls herself the Hyena, meet in the sewers and draw up demands for the Rats. The Human Bishop of Trees, his order considered disreputable by the respectable University, visits a Decan's Fane in the company of a senior thief - and disappears. A corpulent yet elegant architect named Casaubon, who's been hired by the Rats for some unusual military work, appears at Evelian's, looking for the White Crow. A building is plagued by large, evil, unnatural wasps, and terrifying events await the woman who tries to exterminate them. People start falling ill with a possibly magical disease. And then the Boat - the ship of the Dead - appears in the harbor ... .

Could all of these separate events - the sickness, the acts of magia, the Human and Rat plotting - actually be part of a much greater plan? How can you doubt it!

Gentle never bothers with explanations about how any aspect of this world and its situation came to be in the first place. It just is, vividly and entertainingly. I'm no more enlightened than I was any of the previous times I read this, but I enjoyed it all over again.

(Only your friends steal your books. This one was missing from our collection for almost a decade, so I finally broke down and bought another copy.)

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