Reading KJ Parker is a religious experience, which is ironic considering some of the stories included within the pages of Academic Exercises undermine institutions with rabid vigor. Two World Fantasy Award winning novellas, three essays, and nine other stories complete the volume and represent the scope of KJ Parker’s short work to date.
From grifting, to wizarding, to alchemy, to music making, Parker takes the reader deep into a professional psyches of her characters and lays their soul bare. This summation of the author’s work is a must read for anyone with even a passing interest in good fiction.
The book begins with ‘A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong,’ a tale that will remind readers of Milos Forman’s fantastic film, Amadeus (1984). Central to the conflict is a music teacher of note and his finest student, who suffers from a surfeit of talent and a dearth of interest in using it for any great purpose. When the student is condemned to die for crimes committed, he offers his teacher a chance to complete his final work and take credit for his genius. What follows is a disturbingly honest look at a man tortured by his lack, only to discover the only thing that he lacks is a sense of his own worth.
Disturbingly honest is probably the most descriptive term imaginable for Academic Exercises. There is something organic about Parker’s work, a sense that nothing is hidden, that nothing remains behind the curtain, that the razor sharp cut to the jugular of the story is still bleeding all over the page. Whether it’s a music teacher coming to grips with the theft of a student’s work, to a wizard of middling power admitting the unfulfilled promise of his career will never come to be, Parker’s stories take the lowest moments of her characters’ lives and depicts them without any dissembling. The men and women of Academic Exercises have no illusions about the kinds of people they are, nor about the people they will be after Parker’s narrative crucible has run its course.
Built into many of the stories is a brutal view of academia in all its forms. ‘Let Maps to Others’ deals with the hoarding of knowledge by a researcher unwilling to collaborate with his contemporaries for fear the credit will not be adequately divided. In ‘A Rich Full Week’ we learn of a wizard sent into the countryside to solve an undead problem. Unfortunately, he’s not terribly good at his job, but that’s to be expected since all the truly talented individuals spend their time in cloistered study. And in ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ Parker dithers with the concept that a spell called Lorica simply cannot exist and thus does not warrant investigation.
Most condemning perhaps is ‘A Room with a View,’ where a wizard prodigy is brought to the Studium to cultivate his potential. Years later he’s never realized it and finds himself assigned to the most mundane of tasks, which in this case includes looking into the minds of dogs (by the hundreds) for demonic possession. Meanwhile, he’s training a woman, something everyone knows is hardly worth the effort considering the lateness with which their power matures. The dim view of accepting non-traditional academics within a university environment is juxtaposed with one of Parker’s rare uses of overt magic.
There is no such thing, they tell you on your first day in school, as magic. Instead, there’s natural philosophy, science; logical, provable facts and predictable, repeatable reactions and effects. What the ignorant and uninformed call magic is simply the area of natural philosophy where we’ve recorded and codified a certain number of causes and effects, but as yet can’t wholly explain how or why they work.
Throughout the collection the sense of magic is pervasive, a gross departure from Parker’s novel length work which seems more historical fiction than fantasy. Likewise, nearly every story in Academic Exercises is told in the first person, a perspective unused in Parker’s novels. Both of these identifying markers between the different lengths of Parker’s work speaks to the freedom short fiction affords. Magic and voice allow Parker to cut corners, packing in character, setting, and plot into a tiny space without compromising the depth of the story. In fact, reading a Parker novella is like reading someone else’s entire trilogy.
Buried between two of Parker’s most celebrated works ‘Purple and Black’ and ‘Blue and Gold,’ is the finest story in the book. ‘The Sun and I’ relates the concept that if God didn’t exist, we would certainly invent him all the same, undermining yet another traditional institution—the church.
“I mean,” I said, “we could pretend that God came to us in a dream, urging us to go forth and preach His holy word. Fine,” I added, “it’s still basically just begging, but it’s begging with a hook. You give money to a holy man, he intercedes for your soul, you get something back. Also,” I added, as Accila pursed his lips in that really annoying way, “it helps overcome the credibility issues we always face when we beg. You know, the College accents, the perfect teeth.”
Heavily dialogue driven, the story consists of banter back and forth between the various members of the con as they come to realize their grift is more like a heist. Much like the two stories it’s sandwiched between, ‘The Sun and I’ asks the narrator to examine his relationship to those closest to him. Where in ‘Purple and Black’ our narrator is more naive, here he is cynical to a fault, assuming his friends are out to get him. And then in ‘Blue and Gold’ becomes the person of whom everyone should be cynical.
Sprinkled throughout Academic Exercises are actually essays of academic value, including a look at the history of swords, the impetus of siege warfare, and the status quo shattering armor. All provide fascinating insight into the kind of writer Parker fashions herself by sifting through all the many facets of a thing to distill to a single, easily understood truth. Are the histories of these combat tools as simple as Parker portrays them? Certainly not. But, by creating a narrative around the truth, these essays build trust that permeates her fiction. They assure that what Parker writes is true, even when it’s pure fiction.
Academic Exercises is published by Subterranean Press.