Almost five years ago (!), I wrote a beginner’s guide to K.J. Parker for this very site. “Starting with first principles” is still up, and, although 2015 feels like a distant and more innocent time, I’m still standing by every word.
Unlike 2015, however, I can’t pretend that Parker is ‘merely’ a cult author. Parker’s production of short stories, novellas, collections and novels has been matched only by his critical acclaim. Suffice to say that Parker’s brilliance is no longer a secret. But even if Parker hipsterism (Holtsterism) is passé, the author’s quality remains undiminished. The recent albums are just as good as the first one. But Parker’s prodigious output makes the dilemma of choosing one’s first Parker all the more difficult. So where to begin? Parker’s works cunningly defy any sort of simple classification—if I were the sort to ascribe authorial intent, I would shake my fist and declare the author was being deliberately difficult. But there are some themes and trends, or, perhaps better put: axes.
Magic vs the Mundane
For one, how much magic do you like in your fantasy? Parker’s novels, for example, have always had a standoffish relationship with the overtly supernatural. They, mostly, take place in secondary worlds, often with a Roman or Byzantine inflection. But they are also devoid of dragons and spell-slingers. By contrast, Parker’s shorter fiction often directly explores the arcane: featuring wizards and demons and more.
ISFDB classifies Parker’s latest novel, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, as ‘non-genre’, so that’s a sensible place to start if you don’t need dragons in your drama. Things look bleak when Orhan, a back office sort of military man, winds up running the show during the Great Siege. He’s isolated, he’s broke, and his ‘army’ is ill-equipped and thoroughly outnumbered. Fortunately, he’s made a career out of being an underdog. He’s clever, ambitious and utterly unscrupulous. After a few pages with Orhan, you start feeling sorry for the invading army…
Academic Exercises and Father of Lies are two of Parker’s collections and are, cover to cover, packed with some of the most clever, twisty, twisted fantasy stories that you’ll ever encounter. They’re perfect for readers that love magic, and want to see it used properly: magic as the provenance of curious people, who want to tinker and play. Magic, not as a system of rules, but as an excuse to bend them. “Amor Vincit Omnia” and “Message in a Bottle”, for example, are sneaky little stories with the cleverness of Golden Age mysteries, but the imagination of the best modern fantasy.
Brawn vs Brains
Or another dimension—we’ve touched on sorcery, but how about swords? The might to go with the magic. Or do you prefer your conflict a little more low key?
Hack and slash, bro
Sharps is, as the name indicates, all about pointy things. A novel about espionage and imperial ambitions, featuring a travelling team of fencers. The swordplay is front and centre, with all the hackery and slashery that you can ever hope for. Parker being Parker though, the swordplay is treated clinically. It is never described with the florid, quasi-poetic prose of traditional high fantasy. It is mechanical and scientific; impressive and respected, but always taken seriously.
The Scavenger trilogy has sword-monks, I mean, what else do you need? On paper, it feels a bit like a video game: a protagonist with no memory, who is possibly—probably?—a living God, and most definitely dangerous. He wanders the world trying to put together pieces of his past, and increasingly, as he gets clued in: trying to hide from it. Whoever he was—whoever he still is—our nameless, pastless protagonist is trouble; violence and catastrophe follow him wherever he goes. Despite our hero’s best efforts, this is a bloody and terrible book, full of mayhem, swordplay and apocalyptic tragedy.
Talk it out.
I recommend The Folding Knife constantly, if not continuously. And there’s a lot to recommend: it is a political thriller in a secondary world, with some of the most spectacular and surprising plot twists. First and foremost though, The Folding Knife is about Basso—its ambitious and flawed protagonist. Basso is not a warrior, nor heir to a secret bloodline. He’s not in possession of singular magic. Basso achieves greatness through hard work, charisma, intelligence and willpower. No swordplay—although the titular blade does some bloody work—Basso fights different sort of battles.
Epic vs Intimate
Or do you choose a book based on scale? Do you want to read about the fate of nations? Or something a little more personal?
The Two of Swords is a lengthy, serialised novel that was ultimately collected in three volumes. Each novella-length portion is told from a different perspective, capturing everything from peasants to conspirators to assassins to politicians. Two great nations are at war, and the conflict spirals to include an ages-old, mysterious religious order, ambitious, external imperials powers, and much, much more. The constant perspective shifts reveal higher and higher stakes, but also keep the reader grounded in the personal costs of the war.
Keep it cuddly.
“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” is Amadeus in a fantasy setting; a rivalry between a music teacher and his genius student. Although it encapsulates powerful themes of ambition and authorship, ownership and betrayal, “Birdsong” is ultimately a tightly-focused story about one man and his relationship with art.
Heroes vs Anti-heroes
Do you prefer fantasies where Good triumphs and Evil loses? Or something a little more ambiguous? Goodies or baddies or something a little more rogueish?
Bring on the good guys!
The new novella, Prosper’s Demon, has a clear division between good and evil. And, in case of confusion, the latter are demons. Our protagonist has a rare gift of exorcism, the ability to perceive—and battle with—the demons. But with that gift comes a heavy moral weight: the demons don’t leave easily, and the cost can be significant. The world and its magic are fascinating, but the best part of the story is the co-dependency between the exorcist and the demon; the good and the evil. Spoiler: the good guys win. But, further spoiler: do they?
… Eh. Heroism is overrated.
Blue and Gold is another novella, but there’s no clear cut good and evil here. In fact, the reader immediately faces the sinking suspicion that the protagonist might be on the wrong side of any sort of moral division. Salonius is an undisputed genius—the finest alchemist in history. He’s also a shameless liar. He’s held captive, forced to use his genius for a greedy patron, but he’s also no angel. He’s hard-used, but no hero.
This is only a small selection of Parker’s work, and only a few of the possible entry points. In a heroic sacrifice of my own, I’ve left off the Engineer and Fencer trilogies, The Hammer, The Company, and all of the many, many other works that are also my favourites. We’re fortunate enough to have a lot of Parker to choose from, and I hope this helps you find the right first one for you.
Jared Shurin is the editor of The Djinn Falls in Love, The Outcast Hours, The Best of British Fantasy, and many other published and/or forthcoming works. He writes irregularly at raptorvelocity.com and continuously at @straycarnivore.