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Purple and Black by K J Parker

Purple and Black by K J Parker (Subterranean Press, 2009) is slightly unusual in being an epistolary novelette set in the same world as the Engineer trilogy and Company. Most modern prose at length will include one or more letters or other communications. This story is told exclusively through an exchange of military dispatches with covert messages included in the official mail. In the novel length works, we have followed the internecine war between members of the royal family which left Nicephorus alive. The reason for his survival is that he was never interested in the throne. He had hidden himself away in academia and was therefore disconcerted to find himself suddenly elevated as the King. No-one has ever come to power so reluctantly. Because he has no experience and no idea who might be trustworthy, he drags colleagues with him from the ivory towers.

In modern terms, he finds a government based on the interests of the nobility as filtered through an essentially corrupt and inefficient civil service. To force through reforms, he introduces what should have been a technocracy where people are appointed on the basis of their knowledge and expertise. Under normal circumstances, this would see economists appointed to run the department of trade and the treasury, experts in military history to run the department of defence, and so on. Except Nico does not have that many friends he can trust. So, regardless of whether their knowledge is relevant to the different posts, his friends are appointed and told to get on with things as best they can. The result is an advanced form of cronyism. The only justification for this is all the appointees are highly intelligent and come into the political fray without any prior allegiances. If they have the skill and can seize control, they should be able to introduce reforms that have some rational basis and do not excessively favour one group as against another. It should be government from the academic centre of the universe, i.e. hopefully utilitarian.

However, there’s one really difficult post — the regional governorship of Upper Tremissis, the northern provinces where, from what Nico can discover, there’s an invasion or a war or a civil uprising. This is potential dynamite. If the army is allowed to leave the capital, it could turn around, depose the current King and instal one of the generals as the new ruler. It has happened many times in the history of this kingdom. So, if at all possible, this fighting must be brought under control without having to call out the army. Nico therefore appoints his friend Phormio who has no idea how to run his own life efficiently let alone mount a military campaign without any additional soldiers to call on. This sudden banishment to the cold of the north comes as a severe shock to Phormio’s system. To make matter worse, he soon finds his civil servants have every interest in following the letter of the law and never letting him do anything. Indeed, he’s not entirely sure there is any fighting anywhere in this province. And as for finding ink of the right colour to write with. Well, that’s equally impossible. For the record, only purple ink can be used for official communications to the King. Black ink is reserved for private communications. Failure to use the right coloured ink is a serious criminal offence. People have been executed for less.

When old friends correspond, they may actually speak the truth to each other. Friendship means you have the right to be the bearer of bad news or to criticise without fear. Even when one of the friends has become king and has acquired the power of life and death over his subjects, this still holds. . . Or perhaps not. The notion of the unreliable narrator is well established and here we have two ex-colleagues either or both of whom may have a hidden agenda. So, from the outset, we’re looking carefully at what they say, what they imply and what they carefully do not say. The result is a rather pleasing resolution to the problems of leadership at both a national and provincial level.

This is another nicely produced book from Subterranean Press with rather moody jacket artwork from the ever reliable Vincent Chong. My only comment is that the story is rather shorter than the design and typesetting suggests. Purple and Black is elegant and somewhat ironic and only just good value for money in this hardback edition.

For a review of another novella published by Subterranean Press, see Blue and Gold. There’s a standalone novel, Sharps and a collection, Academic Exercises.

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  1. April 4, 2014 at 1:38 am

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