book reviews by Althea

Academic Exercises – KJ Parker

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Academic Exercises
Academic Exercises by K.J. Parker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

***** A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong
A re-read… when I first read it, I wrote: ‘I believe this is the second story I’ve read by Parker, and I’m very impressed. The Renaissance-ish fantasy setting is rich and enjoyable, but the meat of the story is in the complex relationship between two renowned composers, as their fortunes shift. Definitely going to seek out more from this author. (Just ordered two more books!)’
Loved just as much if not more, the second time around!

***** A Rich, Full Week
An adept is sent out by the Brotherhood to investigate and deal with a report of a village plagued by an undead. It’s not an unusual assignment for one in his position, but it is his first time dealing with this specific kind of problem.
Excellent characterization & thoughtfulness elevates this a good step above most tales with a ‘vampire-hunter confronts monster’ theme.

***** Amor Vincit Omnia
Re-read; previously read in Strahan’s 2011 ‘Year’s Best’ anthology, when I said, “A very classic fantasy tale of power struggles amongst wizards. It’s also very good; I loved the conclusion.”
The idea of the story is summed up in this quote, “If a man exists who is immune to force, even if he’s the most blameless anchorite living on top of a column in the middle of the desert, he is beyond government, beyond authority, and cannot be controlled; and that would be intolerable.”
The wizards in this story have all kinds of spells which can be used as terrible weapons – but they have never been able to discover a universal defense. They argue about whether such a thing is even possible, But now, an untrained, wild talent is rumored to have discovered the secret. And the wild talent is no peaceful hermit, but a mad killer. Brother Framea is sent to investigate.
Along the way, as Parker loves to do, there’s quite a lot of commentary of the subjects of ethics and corruptibility.

On Sieges
Informative essay on the history of siege warfare.

**** Let Maps to Others
Another re-read…
“Another excellent short story by Parker, which makes me pleased that I ordered two books from this author since reading “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong.” This is similar in feel There are really two parts to this story – the first explores academic competition and one-upmanship, taken to a disturbing level. The second, following from the results of the first, probes literal exploration, and the consequences of obsession – with a heaping dose of irony.”
Three hundred years ago, an explorer returned from a newly-discovered land, Essecuivo, with tales of fabulous riches and favorable trade agreements. However, the coordinates of this place were kept secret – and lost. Fortunes were made and lost in speculative ventures and investments in future expeditions. Nothing ever came of them. Now, our narrator is a scholar, known as the foremost expert on Essecuivo (the little that’s known of it). His career has been dedicated to it, his personal obsession with the topic has been lifelong. But he has a rival who hates him…

**** A Room with a View
A wizard-scholar who’s, shall we say, not the most successful graduate that the Studium has churned out, is given an unenviable assignment: he has to check a large number of dogs for the unlikely signs of demonic possession, before the animals can legally be cleared for sale. Not only is this an onerous, tedious, and near-pointless task, he has to also train a junior student how to do the job, meaning he can’t even slack off.
But when this student he’s supposed to be mentoring arrives, he’s in for a surprise… not only is she a woman, but something seems strange about her…

Cutting Edge Technology
Extremely interesting and entertaining essay on the history of swordmaking and the techniques of swordfighting.

**** Illuminated
On assignment, instructed only to “investigate,” an arrogant, chauvinistic wizard and his junior assistant are looking into a remote, abandoned tower. It looks like this tower was inhabited, not terribly long ago, by a rogue wizard. From the evidence found in a difficult-to-decipher manuscript, it looks like this wizard, in a situation eerily mirroring that of the investigators’, also had a talented but inexperienced female trainee. And his experiments with new spells may have been less than ethical.

*****Purple and Black
An epistolary novella consisting mainly of correspondence between two young school friends – one of whom has recently unexpectedly become emperor, and the other of whom has been appointed governor of a province by that emperor. While the letters concern matters of politics and affairs of state, the tone is the chatty, informal one one might expect from best friends, and also have to do with keeping up with mundane personal topics and keeping up with other members of their little school clique…
And somehow, along the way, the story twists from an entertainingly gossipy glimpse into the politics of empire, into a musing on the nature of power and the fate of idealism. Excellently done.

Rich Men’s Skins
An essay on the history of armor. A good companion to the previous essay on swordsmithing.

**** The Sun and I
A re-read.
I really enjoy KJ Parker’s style. This is a fun and irony-filled tale of a group of dissipated young men who decide to start a new religion as a way to jump-start their cash flow. However, when the scheme succeeds past their wildest dreams, the joke might end up being on them – or on the world at large.

**** One Little Room an Everywhere
Our protagonist is a graduate from the Studium (KJ Parker’s school for wizards [or maybe scientists], which is a recurring feature in his fiction), but has barely scraped through graduation by the skin of his teeth. He’s simply unable to master many of the expected skills, and is certainly not going to get a job placement. His advisor counsels him to go into another field – a non-magical one. The arts maybe, or accounting.
Naturally, our narrator is disappointed. Were his years of study wasted? Nevertheless, he seems to take his advisor’s advice, and goes into painting religious icons. But, he didn’t actually graduate from the Studium without learning anything. He’s got a “cheat” – a forbidden spell. As his fame and fortune grows, one would think he’d managed to grasp the best of both worlds. But there’s always a catch, isn’t there?

**** Blue and Gold
KJ Parker revisited the character of Saloninus, introduced here, in ‘The Devil You Know,’ which I read a few months ago. I understand why – it’s a great character! (Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had been an amoral conman and alchemist?) If you’ve read either one, some of the details here will be familiar to you.I did think that ‘The Devil You Know’ was slightly better, but this one was great too.
KJ Parker’s wry cynicism regarding human nature is on display in top form, in this story.
The narrator tells you upfront that he’s unreliable: a liar, a criminal, and not to be trusted. He also tells us that he discovered the secret of transmuting base metals to gold, and that he murdered his wife. Should we believe either of these things?
Along the way, Saloninus’ stories shift a bit – sometimes more than a bit – but they’re always entertaining. I liked the commentary on how discovering the secret of how to create gold might not really be the best thing for its discoverer… along with many other gems.

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