Academic Exercises: A collection of stories from an original voice

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAcademic Exercises by K.J. ParkerAcademic Exercises by K.J. Parker

K.J. Parker is a relatively recent discovery of mine, and she (?) is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Known for her dry cynicism, understated humor, and intriguing explorations of morality, her stories are set in a historically informed world fleshed out with Parker’s rich historical knowledge.

Collected here in her first anthology, Academic Exercises, her short fiction has so far won two World Fantasy Awards for her novellas “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” and “Let Maps to Others.” Included in this anthology are also three non-fiction essays on historical subjects such as siege warfare, and the history of swords, and armor.

K.J. Parker’s short fiction differs from her longer works in that they frequently feature magical elements, something that her longer works largely stay away from.  Although some elements from her longer works are referenced in her short work, the link between them is tenuous and contradictory, making you wonder just how much is actually shared between them. I won’t comment on every story included in this collection and will instead offer a short description and appraisal of the ones that I found most interesting. Most of the stories included here can be found online at Subterranean Online, and at the end of this piece you will find the full table of contents, with links to where you can read them, when available.

Opening up the collection, “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong,” one of her award-winning novellas, explores an interesting moral dilemma: If you could claim a masterpiece as your own without anyone finding out about it, would you do it? In his last hours alive, a genius composer, who has been sentenced to death, is visited in his cell by his professor, who, while being an expert in musical theory, is unable to compose any good music. The student has an unfinished Concerto, one that could very well be one of his best yet, but he doesn’t want to finish it and the professor is left with an unfinished masterpiece in his hands. The story develops in a remarkable way, but it ends rather abruptly in a way that I did not find very satisfying.

How do you kill someone who can’t be killed? In “Amor Vincit Omnia,” reports begin appearing of someone with the ability (the name given to the ability to perform magic) who has escaped unharmed from every attempt to have him killed. The Studium, the place where those with the ability study their craft, decides that these reports are worth investigating, since they all seem to point in the same direction: Someone has cracked the secret to Lorica, a theoretically possible, but almost impossible to perform, spell that imbues its wearer with an impenetrable defensive shield. It is the job of the main character then to confirm if Lorica has indeed been achieved, and if so, to kill this person. It’s an intelligent and suspenseful story, and it has an entirely satisfying, and incredibly clever, ending that made me grin like a madman when it happened.

“On Sieges” is the first non-fiction essay in the collection, out of three, and the one I most enjoyed. Siege warfare has always been an interest of mine and Parker is able to make the subject come alive with her words. It begins with how war was an important incentive for early civilizations to begin building cities, and ends up exploring how siege warfare was conducted throughout the ages. I wonder if there is a non-fiction book on warfare somewhere in K.J. Parker’s future. It would certainly be a worthwhile read.

My favorite story of the lot, and apparently Parker’s first novella, Purple and Black is told in a series of military dispatches between two friends, one the emperor and the other a governor tasked with securing the frontier. While you might think the structure constraints of telling a story through military dispatches would make impossible the telling of an interesting and compelling story, Parker is a seasoned enough writer to not only work around those constraints, but to thrive on them. As usual with her stories, several ethical issues are raised in a way that weaves them with the story at hand and its climax, namely the corrupting nature of power.

Imagine yourself with a group of friends, out of money and in desperate need of it. Assume for the sake of it that being an ethical person isn’t of much interest to you. What schemes would you arrange with them to get yourselves out of that predicament? How about creating a new religion? It’s an absurd idea but Parker’s story “The Sun and I” is perhaps the most important story in this collection for long-time K.J. Parker readers because this newly invented religion is none other than The Invincible Sun, a religious system which has been featured in many of her longer works.

I would be surprised if Academic Exercises doesn’t end up winning some awards.  The collection features some of the most intriguing short fiction out there, by one of the most original voices being published today, and, fortunately, there is no indication that K.J. Parker’s output will be diminishing any time soon. Academic Exercises has that ‘unputdownable’ quality to it that made me want to read it even when I probably should have been doing something else, and its tiny faults don’t detract anything from its ingenious whole. A worthwhile read, even for readers who are new to K.J. Parker’s work.

Table of Contents

Publication Date: July 26, 2014. 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.

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JOÃO EIRA, one of our guests, is a student at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, one of the oldest universities in the world, where he studies Physics and Economics. Having spent his formative years living in the lush vistas of Middle Earth and the barren nothingness in a galaxy far far away, he has grown to love filling his decreasing empty bookshelf space with fantasy and science fiction books. For him a book’s utmost priority should be the story it is trying to tell, though he can forgive some mistakes if its characters are purposeful and the worldbuilding imaginative. A book with no story can have no redeeming quality though. João probably spends more time fantasizing about books than doing productive things.

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