An excellent new novella from a master of the form
The story of an individual life that takes extraordinary turns. As the story begins, the nameless, dying narrator takes us back to his childhood home in a remote corner of the ubiquitous Empire. The second of three sons, he lives there with his mother in a state of unrelieved poverty. Life eventually becomes so dire that the mother — who can only find work as a prostitute — is forced to sell one of her children. The oldest son, Nico, volunteers to be sold in order to protect his family, and that decision sets in motion everything that follows.
Nico’s journey takes him, in time, to the heart of the Empire and the very center of power. Over time, he acquires considerable power of his own and uses it to bring his younger brothers into the circle of his influence, changing their lives forever. Under Nico’s guidance, the middle brother — our nameless narrator — achieves a destiny that will alter not only his own life, but the life of the Empire itself.
Each new K.J. Parker novella is something to be cheered. A prolific writer of short fiction (and full-length novels), Parker always brings something new to his stories. Written with a gentle, observant wit, this novella manages to pack a lot into its slim frame.
As the synopsis states, this is a story told from the perspective of one of the three brothers — he remains unnamed throughout, and through his eyes we learn a great deal about this fantasy world. It is not set in our world or during our history, but there are shades of each that come through. The brothers begin their lives in an impoverished rural community, one in which religion and its superstitions dictate life and justice — sometimes, as Parker’s narrator points out, even if it’s ridiculous. Nico is sold, leaving the two younger brothers on their own. Ostracized after the death of their mother, they turn to a life of crime with mixed results. Eventually, they are reunited with their eldest brother who has managed to carve out a new, influential life for himself in the Capital.
The only monsters in this world are those in human form. The novella is full of politics, and focuses especially the lengths to which certain individuals will go in order to cement and expand their influence and wealth. Nico is quietly ruthless, and what we learn of his maneuvering and rise to power is almost textbook Machiavellian strategizing. (However, his facility with politics and attendant arrogance blinds him to threats he should perhaps have considered…)
We follow the brothers — well, two of them: Edax, the youngest and dumbest, is peripheral for most of the story — through various maneuvers and coups, during which cracks eventually form between their various agendas and ambitions.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novella. Parker always brings new observations of the human condition to each of his stories (long-form and short-), and his gentle wit does wonders for bringing his characters and settings to life. He has a healthy suspicion of people, perhaps, which helps him examine and highlight the too-frequent failings of those in power.
If you are familiar with Parker’s fiction already, then no doubt this novella has been on your must-read list since you first learned of it. If you’re new to his work, then I would certainly recommend him — any of his short fiction would serve as an excellent starting place, and I really don’t think you’d be disappointed.
A must read. Very highly recommended.
K. J. Parker’s My Beautiful Life is due to be published by Subterranean Press on November 30th, 2019.