Another not so old Non-Bestseller: The Walled Orchard, by Tom Holt
A review by Rich Horton
Tom Holt recently made a fair amount of news when he outed himself as the man behind the "K. J. Parker" pseudonym. This was not exactly a major shock -- Holt was by far the name most commonly suggested as being behind the Parker name. There were those who though Parker might be a woman (a notion I always thought unlikely, not because of any sense that the writing was "ineluctably masculine", but because of the treatment of men, women, and their relationships in Parker's books). Others were thrown off by stunts like Holt's publishing an "interview" with "Parker" at Subterranean a few years ago.
As for me, in the December 2010 issue of Locus I wrote the following: "I had more pleasure reading K J. Parker’s Blue and Gold than just about anything I've read all year. It features a beautifully constructed plot, plenty of cynical jokes and even some worthwhile commentary on man as a political beast. The story is set in what seemed to me something of an alternate Rome or Byzantium, perhaps a bit like the Rome of Avram Davidson's Vergil stories or his Peregrine stories. It concerns one Saloninus, who opens the book by telling someone "In the morning I discovered the secret of changing base metal into gold. In the afternoon, I murdered my wife." Whether either or both or neither of these claims is true is much of what the story is about, as well as what to make of his relationship with his city’s ruler, Prince Phocas. This is an extremely funny story through and through. The humor, and some of the darkness behind it, reminded me a good deal of Tom Holt's masterpiece, The Walled Orchard, which is close to as high praise as I have in me." Obviously that put me in the Holt=Parker camp, and after that I stayed silent on the subject at request, in order to keep a confidence.
Blue and Gold was one of the first "K. J. Parker" stories I read, and I have read many since, including several novels, among them the Engineer Trilogy, possibly his most famous work. I like them all, for the voice, yes, and for the intricate plots, and for the intriguing details of ancient technology and politics, and for the neat magic systems (when magic is present, that is), and for the dark but not quite despairing view of human nature.
I daresay most readers know Tom Holt best for his humorous fantasies, which began appearing in 1987 with Expecting Someone Taller. These are very funny and clever, and I read them happily for a while, but they began to seem a bit samey-samey after the first few. Since then I've sampled a couple more, with modest but not tremendous enjoyment. Holt also wrote a couple of sequels to E. F. Benson's series of books about Lucia and Mrs. Mapp (which I have not read because I tried the first of Benson's Lucia novels and disliked it), and, famously and (to Holt) embarrassingly, a collection of poems published when he was 13. I am not sure that I would ever have thought that K. J. Parker and the Tom Holt of the humorous fantasies were the same writer.
Parker's stories are all nominally fantasies, but many of them lack explicit magic, and all are set in a quasi-historical past, seeming to resemble Earth of some centuries or a couple millenia past. Names often echo Latin or Greek. Thus they have a distinct feeling of being historical novels to some degree. As it happens, in 1989, Holt published an historical novel set in Classical Greece, the time of Pericles, Socrates, and Euripides. This novel was called Goat Song, and its sequel, The Walled Orchard, appeared the following year. The two books really form a single novel, and they were later published together under the title The Walled Orchard. Holt has published several further historical novels, set in Hellenistic and later times: Alexander at the World's End (a loose sequel to The Walled Orchard), Olympiad, The Song of Nero, and Meadowland. Eventually he decided to publish these historical novels as by "Thomas Holt". These novels are all darkly comic, cynical, and full of plausible detail about the history and politics involved.
Of one of Parker's stories I observed that it is about the problems caused by both love and war, and in fact that theme runs through a number of his stories, including most obviously the Engineer Trilogy. And that theme is utterly central to The Walled Orchard, which I consider his masterpiece, both in the correct sense (the work that proved his ability as a master craftsman), and in the more common contemporary sense: his best and deepest story. The Walled Orchard is very very funny, but in the darkest of ways, and it is ultimately a true tragedy (after all, the title of the original first volume, Goat Song, means tragedy), and very moving indeed.
The novel is told by Eupolis of Pallene, a Greek dramatist, a writer of comedies, and a rival of Aristophanes. He is writing the history of his times, which ends up being the history of the fall of Athens from its place of importance. It's also of course the story of his life, and the story of his love for his wife, Phaedra, whom he loves desperately and also cannot stand, cannot live with.
I won't go into much detail about the plot. It concerns Eupolis' playwrighting, the contests Athens had every year for plays, as well as Athenian politics, and the original democracy. But ultimately it concerns the Athenian adventure at Syracuse on Sicily, during the Pelopennesian War, which ended in complete disaster for Athens. Eupolis is conscripted to fight at Syracuse, and he is one of the few survivors, hence this history. There's much more going on that that of course, but much of the burden of the novel is the horrors and folly of war, especially as experience at the walled orchard on Sicily.
As I said, it's a truly powerful and moving novel, both in its depiction of war, and also in the terribly sad love story of Eupolis and Phaedra. But it remains blackly funny as well. In the end, very true. And ... I will say, rereading passages of the novel, the connections with K. J. Parker's work, and voice, seem extremely obvious. To conclude -- one of the great historical novels of the past few decades, and a somewhat neglected one, I suspect because Holt's name is stereotyped as a writer of light comedies.