Thursday, September 13, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Stories by K. J. Parker

Birthday Review: Short Stories by K. J. Parker

a compilation by Rich Horton

Today is K. J. Parker's birthday, so I figured I'd do another of my compilations of Locus reviews of short stories by the birthday boy (or girl).

K. J. Parker, of course, is a pseudonym for Tom Holt, and in that context, I'm happy to point you to the review I did in December 2010, long before the name behind the pseudonym was revealed, of Parker's Blue and Gold.

Locus, October 2010

Issue #45 of Australia’s Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine has a very strong story by K. J. Parker, "Amor Vincit Omnia". (This story appeared more or less simultaneously in the Summer issue of Subterranean Magazine.) A young wizard is sent investigate a case where an ignorant villager is rumored to have gained the power called "Lorica" -- immunity from any attack. Such power would be very sinister, but it has also been proven impossible. Nonetheless, something awful has clearly happened ... The story very nicely sets the scene, shows the somewhat creepy methods the wizard reluctantly uses to gain power, and convincing depicts the confused local who certainly has stumbled on something scary ... then springs a neat trap to close things.

Locus, December 2010

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.

Locus, April 2011

Better still is "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong", by the mysterious and remarkable K. J. Parker. It is perhaps not really fantasy, except for being set in an imagined world (which much resembles ours of some centuries past). Parker manages to meld black (and very funny) cynicism with truly wrenching moral and emotional themes. Here Parker tells of a distinguished composer who had realized he is just an accomplished mediocrity, mainly by the example of one of his students, a morally damaged man who seemingly effortlessly composes works of real genius. As the story opens, the genius composer is awaiting execution for a careless murder, and he importunes his old teacher to help him escape. The teacher does, of course ... but the story doesn’t end there. It twists on us a couple more times, following the result of the curious payment the genius gave his teacher, and then the future life of both these men. I’m not sure I quite buy the theory about artistic creativity behind this story, but given that the consequences are worked out brilliantly -- and as I said, the working out is both wrenching and bitterly funny.

Locus, April 2013

Another Australian magazine is Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Issue #55 includes a new story by K. J. Parker, always a cause for celebration. "Illuminated", as with many of Parker's recent stories, looks cynically at a magic user trying to take advantage of an obscure spell. Here, an man and his younger female partner investigate an ancient watch tower and discover the remnants of the work of an ambitious mad wizard ... and, just possibly, a remarkable, if very dangerous, "form" (or spell). Just who, or what, holds the real power in dealing with this discovery is part of the question, darkly answered -- the "form" itself is a scary invention as well.

Locus, September 2013

Two stories stood out for me in Jonathan Strahan's Fearsome Journeys. K. J. Parker is a regular in Strahan's books, and appears here with "The Dragonslayer of Merebarton". This is in Parker's familiar rather deflating voice. The story is told by what seems to be a kind of small time local lord, getting on in years a bit. There are reports of a dragon killing the local livestock, and he knows it's his duty to try to kill it. So he tries to come up with a fairly sensible approach, with help from some of his friends (and retainers and villagers ...) As I said, the tone is one of deflating fantasy traditions, but this story is not quite cynical -- almost warm; also realistic; believable. Good stuff.

Locus, January 2015

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, in its Sixth Anniversary Double Issue, features as usual four stories, the best being "Heaven Thunders the Truth", by K. J. Parker. (One wonders if the demise of one of Parker's primary markets, Subterranean Online, has led to an appearance in BCS.) This is the Parker we know and love, cynical and knowing, about a young wizard hired to deal with a girl who has got herself pregnant by the wrong sort of young man. It turns out worse than that for everyone involved, especially when it turns out kings (and deposed kings) are tied up in the whole mess. I liked the source of the wizard's power, and his unhappy bearing of the burden of his power, and the guessable but satisfying ultimate secret.

Locus, April 2016

No sooner had I read Interzone that I proceeded to Beneath Ceaseless Skies for February 4, and I read K. J. Parker’s latest, "Told by an Idiot", and immediately Rahul Kanakia's "Empty Planets" had a rival as my favorite 2016 story to date. This is probably his best story since "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong". For a change, this isn’t set in Parker’s infinitely useful fantasy world, but in what seems our world, Elizabethan England (with perhaps slight changes). Put simply, it’s the story of a lucky man from Wales, who, partly because he finds things, has become rich, and the owner of a playhouse. Then he finds a bottle with, it is said, a demon inside. And what if it is? Parker works out the implications effectively, and besides we get some cool local color, especially including lots of Elizabethan drama neep ... with of course plenty of subtle Shakespearean references.

Locus, October 2017

My favorite novella this year to date is Mightier than the Sword, by K. J. Parker. This is told by the nephew of the current Empress, who is pretty much in charge of the Empire as her husband’s health fails. She sends her nephew, a surprisingly capable general, on a mission to figure out why raiders are ransacking monasteries. At the same time our protagonist is trying to save the whore he loves to distraction ... while he slowly realizes, to his horror, that he might just be the most logical heir to his uncle’s throne. It’s pure Parker, cynicism married with a certain offhand idealism -- and featuring desperate love of a perhaps unworthy woman (this theme goes back at least to Tom Holt’s incomparable diptych The Walled Orchard, one of the great unrecognized historical novels of the past few decades). Somehow amidst all the cynicism this is quite a moving novella.

Locus, June 2018

The standout this month, however, is by K. J. Parker. "The Thought That Counts" is one of Parker’s morality tales, and like so much of his work turns on the potentially ruinous effects of love. The narrator, anonymous (but, it seems, a familiar figure in a Parker’s fantastical history, a certain brilliant but unscrupulous philosopher) tells of his encounter with a woman, an artist, escaping her farming family to become a portrait painter in the big city. When a number of her subjects turn up mysteriously mindless, the narrator ends up defending her in court -- and then remembers another woman he had known long ago. It’s blackly funny, in the usual Parker mode, and mordantly reflective of the nature of evil.

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