A superb collection of short fiction by one of the masters of the form
Academic Exercises is the first collection of shorter work by master novelist K. J. Parker, and it is a stunner. Weighing in at over 500 pages, this generous volume gathers together thirteen highly distinctive stories, essays, and novellas, including the recent World Fantasy Award-winner, “Let Maps to Others”. The result is a significant publishing event, a book that belongs on the shelf of every serious reader of imaginative fiction.
The collection opens with the World Fantasy Award-winning “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong,” a story of music and murder set against a complex mentor/pupil relationship, and closes with the superb novella “Blue and Gold,” which features what may be the most beguiling opening lines in recent memory. In between, Parker has assembled a treasure house of narrative pleasures. In “A Rich, Full Week,” an itinerant “wizard” undergoes a transformative encounter with a member of the “restless dead.” “Purple and Black,” the longest story in the book, is an epistolary tale about a man who inherits the most hazardous position imaginable: Emperor. “Amor Vincit Omnia” recounts a confrontation with a mass murderer who may have mastered an impossible form of magic.
Rounding out the volume — and enriching it enormously — are three fascinating and illuminating essays that bear direct relevance to Parker’s unique brand of fiction: “On Sieges,” “Cutting Edge Technology,” and “Rich Men’s Skins.”
Taken singly, each of these thirteen pieces is a lovingly crafted gem. Together, they constitute a major and enduring achievement. Rich, varied, and constantly absorbing, Academic Exercises is, without a doubt, the fantasy collection of the year.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of K. J. Parker’s novellas and short stories. The novellas he’s published with Tor.com and Subterranean Press routinely are among my favourite reads of any given year. Academic Exercises is the author’s first big collection of shorter fiction, and it’s a fantastic one at that. I really enjoyed this, and it further cemented my opinion of Parker as one of the best authors of short fiction.
Each of these stories is expertly crafted. Each of the protagonists is engaging and interesting. They are all of a more bookish type than one finds in many fantasy novels and novellas (hence the collection’s title, I suppose), and I welcomed this — as a lapsed academic, I could relate to their thirst for knowledge, minor intellectual pettiness (any time in academia will nurture this in anyone), their tendency to overthink things, their belief that they are more intelligent than anyone else around them, and their belief that you can find an answer to almost any question and situation in a good book. Parker’s stories are never in a rush to be told, which makes his short fiction something to be savoured. (Strangely, it often makes his full-length novels feel somewhat plodding to me.) There’s a frequent lightness to the telling, too, with moments of excellent humour and occasional whimsy.
I won’t walk through each of the stories, but I wanted to just briefly pick out my favourites.
Purple and Black is superb epistolary novella, and my favourite in the collection. Originally released separately, this is an excellent story of friendship, empire, idealism confronted by reality, and betrayal. The two primary correspondents are Phormio, a reluctant regional governor tasked with putting down an insurgency, and Nicephorus V, the reluctant Emperor struggling with an entrenched system that resists change but also reinforces certain state oppressions and heavy-handedness. They are college friends, and I very much enjoyed their exchanges — complete with humble bragging (as Phormio experiments with military maneuvers referencing his copy of The Art of War), personal recollections, amusing observations, and so forth; as well as brief, to-the-point “official” missives. It is both comedy and tragedy, and the ending was moving and packs a quiet punch. Easily the best in the collection.
Let Maps to Others is one of the more substantial stories in the collection, and starts off as a story of academic competition that grows into a doomed adventure. A scholar whose speciality is a missing manuscript by the Republic’s greatest explorer and the mythical land he claimed to discover, engages in a battle with his greatest rival and each takes steps that spiral a little out of control. The protagonist, in particular, ends up reaping a very different reward to the one he anticipated. There are hints of East India Company history, and also maybe even a cheeky Falklands reference. It also finishes on a sadly tragic realization that pokes at nations’ tendency to assume others know nothing and the harm that not working together can cause.
The Sun and I is a story about what happens when a group of conmen invent a religion to defraud gullible civilians and it… spirals rather out of control. This story is told as something of a dumbfounded confessional. It blends not only the power of belief to move people, but also the deep cynicism of the medieval church. (“Vicarious absolution”, for example, is is a marvellous phrase.) Like Purple & Black, there’s fraternal betrayal, too.
The first story in the collection, A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong, is a fascinating look at inspiration, creativity, plagiarism(ish)/intellectual theft, and ambition. A music scholar confronts a far-more-talented student who has been arrested, and must grapple with the ethics of taking his final masterpiece and passing it off as his own — even though he is given permission to do so. The story covers his life after that fateful decision. It also ends with a classic Parker reveal at the end.
The essays in the collection — one each about the evolution in sieges, swords, and armour — were interesting and informative. These are excellent examples of what history should be: informative, engaging, by no means dry, and quite lively. They are probably also very valuable for anyone interested in writing fantasy fiction containing battles. The siege essay, in particular, was very interesting and made me even more interested in reading Parker’s most recent novel, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.
I’ve said this before in my reviews of Parker’s novellas, but if you are a fan of fantasy fiction, and/or the short fiction form, then I can’t recommend Parker’s work highly enough. His novellas and short stories are must-reads for me, and Academic Exercises is a fantastic trove of excellent stories. Incredibly imaginative and inventive.
For more of Parker’s shorter fiction, I’d also highly recommend The Father of Lies, another collection published by Subterranean Press, that includes some of his Tor.com novellas in addition to a host of other stories.
K. J. Parker’s Academic Exercises is out now, published by Subterranean Press.
Also on CR: Reviews of Downfall of the Gods, My Beautiful Life, The Last Witness, Devil You Know, Prosper’s Demon