Blue and Gold by K J Parker
It’s curious how, when you grow old, you lose that questing spirit of youth. I used to range far and wide in search of new and interesting writing talent. Now I have to wait for someone to hit me over the head and tell me to try an author. In this case, no-one seems sure who it is — apparently it’s a kind of Alice Sheldon situation with an author jealously guarding anonymity. Anyway, no matter who this is, he or she writes beautifully. I’ve just charged through Blue and Gold (Subterranean Press, 2010) by K J Parker. It’s a delight. I’m increasingly impressed by the Subterranean series of novellas and, to improve my mood, it turned out there were two more short stories by said Parker on Subterranean’s site. So I got three for the price of one — great value!
This is an unreliable narrator story which, if done well, is among the most interesting to read. By their nature, a puzzle is presented for the reader to solve. Why is it this particular character has a need to lie or feels the need to conceal his or her essential nature. This ignores the less interesting variations where the character is plainly less than sane. It’s bad enough trying to make sense of my own tendencies to irrationality as my body weakens and mind degrades through age. Being invited to look inside the mind of a fictional character with a similarly weak grasp on reality is not attractive as a mirror to my own problems.
So, from the first page, we have this first-person narrator, one Salonius, assert with pleasing honesty that, in the morning, he cracked the age-old problem of how to turn base metal into gold and, in the afternoon, murdered his wife. Obviously, for some, this is the ideal way of celebrating the sudden acquisition of unlimited wealth. Who wants to share all this gold with anyone who would only waste it on herself? Except, as the book progresses, we discover this was no ordinary death. Nothing so crude as an attack with a blunt instrument, you understand. And not a death motivated by gold, of course. Everyone knows it’s impossible to change base metals into gold. So here we are with the undoubted fact of a death and no clear understanding of how and why it should have occurred. What makes this even more surprising is the reaction of her brother, one Phocas who, courtesy of an outbreak of a virulent disease, skipped over the normal rules of succession as relatives closer to the local throne fell by the wayside. Why should the local ruler. . . Well, there do seem to be local political difficulties but, for now, he’s more or less in charge. So why should a loving brother be prepared to forgive our narrator for the death of his sister. Ah, yes, I did forget to mention that Salonius was married to the ruler’s sister. Sorry about that. I’m an unreliable narrator as reviewer, you see.
One thing rapidly becomes clear as you read this delightful little book. Salonius is a bright and intelligent person. In fact, he’s probably too bright for his own good, what with this demand for alchemists who can rustle up useful stuff like gold. In career terms, this is somewhat confusing because he never intended to become an alchemist. Like spending some time as a thief, it was a profession he drifted into as the need arose. He probably should have become one of these ivory tower professors who spend their years musing over problems with no obvious solution, writing impenetrable monographs no-one would ever read. But his life was never destined to be quiet. He was always going to make a name for himself, one way or another.
The story is a particularly pleasing slow reveal of the broader circumstances leading to the death of his wife. I was entranced by the author’s sly humour. Not in the sense of jokes, you understand. No, nothing so crude as jokes. The humour arises from the cut-throat nature of the society being described. If an intelligent man is not only to survive but make money, he needs to develop problem-solving skills. Solonius demonstrates a mastery of the obvious trick.
Some years ago, I had the good fortune to know a professional sleight-of-hand magician. He could make a variety of small objects appear and disappear in the most surprising ways. Having seen one or two of the manipulations in slow motion, I can attest to the fact he had great skill. But even seeing a trick deconstructed, I still have no clear idea how he did it. The level of physical dexterity was beyond belief. As a dispassionate observer, you know it’s not magic. After all, like alchemy, you know there’s no such thing as magic. But there are times when you encounter skill levels so high, you would like to believe magic is real. So Salonius makes people around him want to believe. Even when he tells them the truth — that it’s impossible to turn base metal into gold — they still gather round to see the trick one more time.
I cannot recommend Blue and Gold too highly. When I have a little more time, I’m going to read it again, just to remind myself how the trick is done.