Academic Excercises

by K.J. Parker

“Thanks to my lifetime of exhaustive study, I’m the least qualified man in the world to offer an opinion.”

The storytelling here is rich but not indulgent, detailed but not fussy. It moves fast, but these tales can stretch the word ‘short’ in short stories. Even the shortest have plenty of meat to dig into. Because they all take place in the same world and can relate to each other, the collection gives the impression of a fully detailed universe without actually being a novel.

Three of the stories here aren’t stories, they’re well-written and interesting essays, with one of them absolutely outstanding. “On Sieges” explains some of the history of siege warfare, why it works and when it doesn’t, and “Rich Mens Skins; A Social History of Armour” tells us a lot about the historical and practical place of armor in warfare. “Cutting Edge Technology,” however, was an enrapturing look at swords throughout history and is one of the best pieces in the book. If you pick this up, don’t skip the essays. At the very least check out the one on swords.

The fiction here ranges from good to excellent with no exceptions, but it wasn’t too difficult to single out a couple of them for higher merit.

“The Sun and I” details the manufacture, manipulation and eventual adoption of a fake religion becoming a real religion. We recognize and relate to sitting around the house and dreaming of a better world and enacting plans to get there. We alternate between cheering these characters on and wincing at their missteps. Importantly, here we get to see the author take a crack at decoding religion. Why this? Why that? Well, it’s because this is this and that is that and can’t you see how everyone benefits here? It’s really quite something, and when it’s all said and done you have to wonder about our world and how we came to follow the traditions we have. Not that there is any similarity in style or humor, but Douglas Adams would probably have liked to have read this story.

In “Blue and Gold,” another favorite and the final story of the book, we follow the world’s greatest alchemist, a kind of self-admitted buffoon who knows just enough to be extremely dangerous, as he’s given the dual tasks of transmuting lead to gold and creating an elixir of eternal life. This story, along with the rest of the book, is filled with intrigue and power plays, but this kind of espionage is always handled in a laid-back, ‘whoops’ kind of way as opposed to a cock-sure James Bond style. Yes, we’re human and will always be stabbing each other in the backs for personal gain, but world-making events tend to occur here because someone got drunk and collapsed to the left instead of to the right, as opposed to subtle machinations of the elite. Or in other words, the world’s messed up not because of a few bad, tyrannical apples, but because we’re all of us the way we are and that’s the way it’s got to be.

“He was there to keep me from getting out, and I’m a free man, a citizen of the universe, not a chicken in a coop. I never set out to hurt anybody, not ever. Well, not often. And when I do, it’s never the primary purpose, just an unfortunate inevitable consequence. Mostly.”

The book is well worth it, and it’s a rare occurrence to finish a collection of stories that so thoroughly populates a single world, an area most often reserved for novels and series. Mr. Parker (Tom Holt) has a rich, distinctive style, a flair for the absurd, and the skill to get it across while mostly maintaining a straight face. This one is a bit more challenging and runs a little deeper than most collections.

4 stars

 

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