Academic Exercises by K J Parker
Academic Exercises by K J Parker (Subterranean Press, 2014) is an outstanding collection of short stories, novellas and novelettes. Most of the stories were published online so this represents the first hard copy opportunity to read them. It’s an interesting fact that Subterranean and Eclipse Online have been so active in promoting this writer’s work at shorter length. Better known as a novelist, this collection demonstrates that a true storyteller succeeds no matter what the length of the story. Each of the works of fiction is a masterclass of the art of narrative. What makes these stories even more interesting is that, in a way, the author more obviously crosses the line into fantasy with the supernatural assumed to be real. This departs somewhat from the novels which may be packaged as fantasy, but are actually historical fiction, i.e. mediaeval thrillers with no real systems of magic or supernatural beings on display. The three non-fiction pieces also included are delightfully illuminating insights into history.
“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” (2012 World Fantasy Award-Winner for Best Novella) is a wonderful story in which the relationship between a teacher and a brilliant student is charted from the early days in which the student despises the teacher’s poverty of imagination, through a period when the teacher’s reputation rises, until there’s a final moment of revenge that only a true master of the art could really appreciate. In civilised societies, things don’t get much more vicious than this. “A Rich, Full Week” sees a peripatetic brother going out on his rounds to keep the countryside free from assault from magical or generally supernatural beings. We discover he’s perhaps not the best of practitioners — they tend to stay in the city and do research — but there’s a dogged determination to avoid death (or other forms of extinction) that serves him well. “Amor Vincit Omnia” reminds us that some skills are as natural as breathing and we all do that, don’t we? So the question would be how best to persuade a breather to stop, just for a moment, so that an adjustment could be made. I suppose an appeal could be made. Perhaps something along the lines of, “Come to Mamma!”
“Let Maps to Others” (2013 World Fantasy Award-Winner for Best Novella) gives us an insight into the academic realm where scholarship is its own reward. Of course, if you did happen to come up with information about where your local Eldorado was located, there would be people willing to pay a lot for that. Unfortunately, there are no maps. . . But perhaps there might be a coded map reference showing the location. No, that’s far too unlikely, particularly if some of the documents were forgeries. Ah, now that really would add extra spice to the expedition sent out to the map coordinates. Or perhaps the crew should suck lemons. To say this story is completely entrancing is an understatement. “A Room with a View” allows us to continue the study of how magic may be performed. It all depends on being able to access mental constructs called rooms. The theory says you never find anything inside a room you enter for the first time, but you can take something into the room with you that may remain behind. It’s always useful to remember your theory should a practical need arise. “Illuminated” reminds us that the book is the medium through which one generation passes on useful information to the next. To protect the pages from contamination, it may be advisable to wear gloves. Some precautions before and during the reading itself may also be desirable. Otherwise the result may be more illuminating than you expect.
“Purple & Black” was published separately and is already reviewed on this site at length. “The Sun and I” reflects on the old truism that, if God had not existed, we would have had to invent him. Here a group of young men are uncertain how best to avoid looming poverty. They are “inspired” to begin promoting a new religion, and then discover something unusual is happening. The way in which the story balances cynicism and a sense of wonder is masterful. “One Little Room an Everywhere” also deals with the unexpected arrival of a talent. A young man who had little talent as a magician discovers he may have the ability to create works of art. The uncertainties lie in the exact nature of the process and the real price to be paid. “Blue & Gold” is also reviewed at length on this site.
“On Sieges” (non-fiction) is a fascinating piece picking out the highlights of military strategy through the ages as the balance of power shifts between offensive and defensive capabilities. What makes this so interesting is not the recital of facts, many of which I already knew, but the reminder of just how long some of these ideas and tactics have been around. So even in the last century, trench warfare was briefly necessitated by the arrival of the machine gun but once tanks were perfected, the army could drive around the fortified line. Stalingrad shows us that aerial bombardment creates endless places for the defenders to dig in for protection, while the need to occupy land invaded will always require boots on the ground. “Cutting Edge Technology” takes us into the world of the sword and how to fight with them. Although it’s slightly off-point, this is worth reading to discover the truth about the Springfield Rifle used in the First World War. It’s a delicious irony. “Rich Men’s Skins” continues the exploration of hardware by looking at the history of armour. Although I knew a little of the fighting styles of the Greeks and Romans, this filled in more gaps in my knowledge than the other two. The three pieces taken together form an immediately accessible fund of knowledge.
Put all this together and you have one of the best collections of 2014. It should be shortlisted for every major award. Academic Exercises is a must read!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.