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Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Purple and Black" by KJ Parker (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

K.J. Parker at Wikipedia
Order "Purple & Black" HERE

INTRODUCTION: Pseudonymous author KJ Parker has made a name in fantasy with 10 novels so far - of which I read 8, all this year and plan to read the other two quite soon and then do a full overview of her work before her next novel is published in early 2010.

There are 3 trilogies: Fencer, Scavenger, Engineer and one standalone: The Company that share some characteristics: military setting in a generic pre-industrial society with Roman/Byzantine overtones and naming conventions, dark humor, detached narration, love of details especially about metal working, sword fighting and pre-industrial engineering, themes of betrayal, civilization versus "barbarians", group of extraordinary friends.

Overall there are two major strands in the novels - the Fencer and Engineer trilogy emphasize the lone hero, deep schemes and betrayal, while the Scavenger trilogy which is my favorite so far, though I still have the last two Fencer books to read, and "The Company" follow a small group of unusual friends in unusual circumstances and their cohesion vs betrayal powers most of the narrative. It may not be immediately obvious in "Shadow" but the last volume "Memory" is all about that and illuminates the earlier two volumes.

"Purple & Black" falls into the latter category and can serve as a great introduction to this superbly talented author.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Set in a Byzantine like setting though with some more modern 17-18th century like trappings too, "Purple & Black" consists of a set of dispatches between two scholars. Due to unusual circumstances they had to leave their academic jobs more or less against their will and became emperor and military governor respectively.

Nico is the accidental heir - younger son of younger son - who becomes Emperor on the deaths of the rest of his family
in fratricidal war and Phormio is his best friend whom he dispatches as military governor in the one troubled province on the Northern ice-cold border where an unknown enemy attacks.

The Empire has had over 70 emperors in the last 100 years with the army making and un-making them, but Nico's grandfather, a tough "steelneck" general became a brilliant emperor who reigned over two decades and seemed to have stopped the disorder in the Empire.

He made only one mistake acceding to his wife's pleas and not executing all his children and their families but his older son and his family, as he was intending to assure the succesion. So Nico's father and his family survived as did the Emperor's other children and in due course they went to war against each other and exterminated themselves throwing the Empire once more in chaos. Nico safely tucked away as a professor in a provincial academy survived and the army acclaimed him Emperor as the last dynasty member - an offer that literally could not be refused unless Nico was feeling suicidal.

From his university days there was a circle of friends around Nico and Phormio with the brilliant Gorgias the only one now dead in the civil wars. Nico appoints the other three friends to important posts in the capital reserving the hardest task for his best friend. Phormio has no choice but to try and learn how to be a great general since Nico wants to break the power of the "steelnecks" and the army and return the Empire to stability. But the unkwown enemy has other plans...

If you have read more KJ Parker you will get an inkling of what is going on faster though the novella will still keep you in suspense for a while. Even so it's brilliant, almost perfect (maybe 20-30 extra pages were needed) and a great introduction to her work too
. Also do not be fooled by the novella designation and the 100 page count since "Purple & Black" packs content as for a 400 page novel, a refreshing change from the 2000 page trilogies that pack 400 pages content that are so common in the field.


PeterWilliam said...

Another wishlist item, courtesy of Liviu.

Anonymous said...

Sorry ... just started reading Parker's works ... wondering how you became convinced this author is a woman? I think so too, but there's some ambiguity online.

Liviu said...

I have no real idea of the gender of KJ Parker but all the recent online references I saw are as "her" including from one of "her" publishers

Wikipedia article above has more discussion on the topic

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