Talk about unreliable narrators! If you like that technique, you’re sure to enjoy K.J. Parker’s Blue and Gold. It’s a fast, intense, and dramatic little book that will entertain you for an afternoon.
Saloninus is probably the cleverest alchemist who ever lived (or is he?). After publishing several important (?) papers and losing his tuition money, he drops out of the university and begins a life of crime, then gets commissioned by the prince to figure out how to do two things: 1. Produce the elixir of eternal youth and 2. Turn base metal into gold. During the process, though, he accidentally (?) poisons his beautiful and brilliant wife, so now he’s on the run and he’s pretty stressed-out.
Blue and Gold’s plot is told in a series of scenes that take place in the present and past as Saloninus gradually fills in more and more detail and occasionally corrects his previous misstatements. His scientific, yet unethical (perhaps even sociopathic), voice is fascinating. He doesn’t let us in on some important facts, and every time he adjusts the story we get a fresh — but not necessarily more accurate — perspective. It’s hard to know whether we’re supposed to be for or against Saloninus; all we know is that we can’t trust him. How can you trust someone who knowingly publishes scholarly papers based on faulty logic? And who won’t tell you who he is or what his goals and purposes are? It’s good that this novella is short, because this might not work in a longer story. Fortunately, Saloninus comes clean in the end, so you needn’t worry about an ambiguous conclusion.
I enjoyed the setting of Blue and Gold. It’s that cozy academic scene that I love: writing theses, studying, attending lectures, consulting advisers, gaining life-long friends. I’ve washed plenty of beakers, weighed my share of powdery chemicals, and sat at numerous lab benches. It felt so real here. I don’t know who K.J. Parker is, but (s)he knows what (s)he’s talking about. Throughout Blue and Gold, the science of alchemy is used as a metaphor for the passage of time, spending money, rising and declining social status, personality development, falling in love, and death.
Blue and Gold is a fast-paced, gripping, excellently written story, which will be especially enjoyed by those who appreciate unreliable narrators and who feel nostalgic about academic settings.