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Academic Exercises by K J Parker

April 4, 2014 4 comments

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!

 

For other reviews of books by K J Parker, see:
Blue and Gold
Purple and Black
Sharps.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Sharps by K J Parker

December 31, 2012 3 comments

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I think it’s time to plunge into a minor thicket of incomprehension and talk about irony for a moment or two. I have it on the best authority that Americans just don’t do irony. In terms of humour, the American audience is usually driven by the gag and dislikes situations in which the listeners are not sure whether the punchline has been delivered and they’re supposed to laugh. I suppose that’s why they clap at the beginning of a song. This avoids any embarrassment in not wanting to clap at the end when they find out how awful the song is. The rather specific cultural omission of an irony gene is customarily explained by an alleged seriousness buried in the American psyche. It seems Americans want uncomplicated communication, not situations in which they have to work out whether what’s being said is to be taken seriously. They therefore reject most irony as tiresome sarcasm, characterising the speakers as rude. So why start this review this way? Well, the general rule is if you don’t know what irony is, it doesn’t help to read definitions in a dictionary. But I hesitate to leave America in the dark. Given its publication in America, I therefore offer Sharps by K J Parker (Orbit, 2012) as a good example of irony for Americans to study.

 

The author specialises in writing a form of alternate history fantasy. Rather than write straight historical fiction, we’re presented with a different set of largely balkanised countries either caught up in national accumulations or Empires, or sufficiently distinct to have retained independence. It’s not uncommon for some of these kingdoms to fight economically disastrous wars, not because the people have anything personal against each other, but because their ruling elites disagree over policy. In this book, we focus on Scheria and Permia. The last war was ended somewhat abruptly when Scherian General Carnufex broke a siege in Permia by damning up nearby rivers and then releasing a flood which drowned thousands. This earned him the nickname of the Irrigator. The temporary peace deal identified a DMZ. By an oversight, this zone happens to be rich in valuable ores. If either side was free to mine, the sale of the resulting metals would rescue the winning country from bankruptcy. As it is, both governments have borrowed money and are unable to repay. As and when the governments default, the banks will collapse and both countries will lose their appearance of wealth. This does not suit the “rich”. Even though they are all mortgaged up to their eyeballs, they see salvation in the resumption of hostilities. To provide a casus belli, the powerbrokers agree that a team of top fencers shall be sent by Scheria to fight exhibition matches against Permian teams. In all the foreseen scenarios, war will be declared.

 

Of course no-one from Scheria would go if they knew they were being sent to their deaths. So a team of expendables has to be recruited. It’s led by Phrantzes, a man of military experience and an ex-fencer. He’s aided by the elusive Colonel Yvo Tzimisces who, when he’s actually around, functions as a kind of fixer. The actual team does contain a current national champion. He’s Suidas Deutzel who’s desperate for money. As a result of his experiences during the last war, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has a tendency to behave in a rather erratic way. Giraut Bryennius was interrupted while making love to a Senator’s daughter. The irate father burst in on them and was provoked into drawing his sword. More by luck than good technique, our naked hero killed the avenging Daddy in self-defence. Iseutz Bringas is a rather bad-tempered woman who refused the arranged marriage that would have given her family a status enhancement. The price of this refusal was membership of the team. Adulescentulus (who prefers the informal name, Addo) Carnufex is the son of the Irrigator — his presence gives the team political credibility. If this is a peace mission, the son of the hated General makes a good sacrificial lamb in the fights. The latter three may, at best, be described as amateurs, i.e. they have never fought in competition and have only ever used foils and blunted weapons. It therefore comes as a shock to them when they discover they will have to use “sharps”, i.e. real weapons that can maim and kill. Naturally, anyone on the Permian team who draws Addo will be out for blood.

 

So there we have it. Our team of heroes sets off for Permia and fencing glory except there are problems even before they manage to get out of Scheria. At first these problems are dismissed. Their suspicions smack too much of paranoia. And even among themselves, they refuse to believe the General would have sent his son to die. What Addo thinks is, of course, less clear. In every way, this is a beautifully constructed mystery as the author challenges us to work out what’s happening while propelling us forward with breakneck speed into a series of fights both on and off the formal piste. The politics and economics are also skillfully interwoven so we can piece together who would have a motive for each move and countermove. The character development is also a delight as either confidence is shaken or cowardice is confronted. I forgive it for being slightly on the long side. When you look back, it’s hard to see what could have been left out without damaging the end product. All things considered, this makes Sharps something of a triumph and, as a standalone, you have no excuse not to read it (missing out on it would, in itself, be an irony given my opening paragraph).

 

For other reviews of books by K J Parker, see:
Academic Exercises
Blue and Gold
Purple and Black

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Purple and Black by K J Parker

June 14, 2012 1 comment

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.

Blue and Gold by K J Parker

August 26, 2011 1 comment

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.

For a review of another novelette published by Subterranean Press, see Purple and Black. There are also a standalone novel Sharps and a collection Academic Exercises.

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