Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Review: Inside Man, by K. J. Parker

Review: Inside Man, by K. J. Parker

by Rich Horton

Inside Man is a 2021 novella by K. J. Parker (Tom Holt.) It was published by I got my copy from John O'Neill at Windy City Pulp and Paper a little while ago. Parker is a writer I always find entertaining in his sardonic fashion, so I brought it with me while I attended my niece Katie's wedding, figuring (correctly) that I wouldn't have much reading time, so something slim would be appropriate.

This story is set in Parker's oft-used fantasy world, but it has an oddly Christian feel to it, complete with references to Saint Michael. It's already clear that we are not to expect any particular historical consistency in this setting, and not necessarily consistency of, say, magical rules either. It's just a convenient frame for stories. (The ISFDB suggests that this is part of a series with Prosper's Demon (2020), which does treat the idea of demonic possession with the goal of influencing future events in a "long game", much like this novel, but otherwise it doesn't seem closely related. I will say that I liked Prosper's Demon rather more than this book.)

The narrator is the Devil, or, as he quickly explains, part of the Devil's organization, thus the Devil in the "My Name is Legion, for we are many" sense. He has been demoted to liturgical compliance at a monastery -- attempting to disrupt the prayers for the soul of a particularly foul sinner who gave the monastery a bunch of money. The ambiguity implied there -- the side of God is taking money to allow a terrible man to escape his deserved punishment while the Devil is trying to stop that -- is part of the point: the narrator argues that he and his fellows are a necessary counterpoint to the hosts of Heaven.

Over time we learn the reason for the narrator's demotion -- a traumatic event while he was possessing the mind of an unborn child with the intention of subverting him as an adult. We learn a bit about unfortunate event in the distant past -- the Rebellion. We learn a lot of Satanic bureaucracy. And we encounter a new assignment for the narrator -- back on the front lines, so to speak -- which is entangled with all that history. 

It's reliably amusing and provoking in Parker's trademark cynical fashion. There is a mass of spot on Biblical references, lots of snark, and a very twisty and clever plot. And there is a certain amount of philosophical/theological speculation. And some real feeling. But it still feels to me like pretty minor K. J. Parker. Not quite as intricate as his novels (not surprisingly, due to length), and lacking the extended passages on how things work that are an abiding pleasure in other Parker stories. (There are also no women characters, which is not necessarily an issue, as Parker's typical view of male/female relationships is quite odd and quite dark. This can be profoundly effective and affecting, as in Tom Holt's masterwork, The Walled Orchard; but it can also come off as unproductively and unconvincingly cynical.)

If you like Parker, you'll enjoy this novella. But it's not essential.

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