In a rare interview in 1999, K. J. Parker answered the question "If you could write your own quote for the front cover of your novel, what would it be?" with "'Technically accurate,' Siege-Engine Builder's Monthly," which tells you a lot about what to expect from a Parker story. Parker has a fascination with the nuts and bolts of life, both literally and metaphorically; the minute descriptions of how things are made (and moved, and cataloged, and regulated, and bought, and sold, and misappropriated, and lost down the back of the sofa) give Parker's world a solidity and a complexity that most fantasy writers cannot hope to achieve. In this collection, alongside short stories and novellas set in the same world as most of Parker's novels, there are three fascinating historical essays, "On Sieges," "Cutting Edge Technology," and "Rich Men's Skins: A social history of armour," which display the depth and breadth of Parker's knowledge and underline just how much research Parker has done and how well-grounded in reality are the societies Parker has imagined.
In the same interview, Parker described the inspiration for writing fantasy as "Being able to write history how it should have been." A great deal of modern fantasy, of course, is set in an imaginary version of the High Middle Ages of Western Europe, with different maps and personnel (and sometimes—optionally—magic). Parker's model, by contrast, is older; a plethora of small details point to the dominant states being based more or less closely on ancient Rome, in particular the Rome of the late imperial age, when the Empire's capital had shifted east to Constantinople and its internal politics had grown complex and nasty. Spells (or "forms" as the characters call them) are given Latin names; dates are appended with the abbreviation AUC, which is never spelled out but presumably stands for ab urbe condita, "from the foundation of the city," a dating system sometimes used in the Roman Empire; the chief religion is the cult of the Invincible Sun, who owes his name and some of his properties to Sol Invictus, a major deity of the late Empire. The similarities pile up. They might be considered merely a series of small Easter eggs to delight classicists, but each one is also a hint to the nature of Parker's project. Parker's fiction is all about rethinking our own world's history—not by restaging or rewriting actual events, but by recreating the processes and mindsets of earlier eras and weaving them into a different pattern of hypothetical actions.
Perhaps the best example of this in Academic Exercises is "Let Maps to Others," an astonishing story that piles twist upon twist and layer upon layer, every movement of the plot seeming both impossible and inevitable, and the whole fitting together so perfectly that it takes one's breath away. Parker draws on the myth of Atlantis, the voyages of Columbus and Cortés, and the South Sea Bubble, among other real-world elements, to craft something grander and more powerful than a mere historical fiction. It's a series of events that could have happened, though they didn't, and if they had, they might well provoke the observation: you couldn't make it up. In the hands of a less skilled author than Parker, it could easily have come across as contrived or unbelievable. Instead, like all the stories in Academic Exercises, it is witty and gripping and packed full of ideas and images that linger in the mind long after the last page has been turned.
If Parker's world is rich and complex, and Parker's plots are devious and dizzying, what of Parker's characters? The typical K. J. Parker protagonist is a world-weary, cynical, brilliant man, somewhat detached from society, intellectual but not introspective, liking comfort but not craving luxury (several of the protagonists of these stories are described as living on bread and cheese even after achieving great wealth; one goes so far as to say that bread and cheese are the only essential foods), capable of love and friendship but not someone you should trust with your heart, your money, or your kingdom. Not that they're bad people, you understand, though they could hardly be described as good either. They're doing their best, for the most part, in a world where the consequences of a person's actions are so complicated and unpredictable that working out the difference between "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong," is an unprofitable and probably impossible task; a world where fraud, tyranny, and power-seeking can result in peace and prosperity, while faith, loyalty, and compassion can bring about destruction and misery. One might be tempted to call Parker's characters amoral, and yet that won't quite do. No matter what they do, there is always a morality in operation, albeit usually an unconventional one; this is a world dominated by shades of grey, yes, but some of those shades are definitely darker than others. There's never any question of there being a straightforward answer to a moral problem, because Parker's world is complex and murky enough that the connection between action and result is often dubious, and people's motivations are almost always mixed or unclear. Several times in this collection, a character tells a deliberate lie which is later proved to be true, purely by chance. Or perhaps not by chance: "The Sun and I," which details the founding of the cult of the Invincible Sun, suggests that perhaps there is a watchful god in Parker's world after all, and that the god in question has a slightly off-beat sense of humor and a liking for paradoxes.
And this is a liking he shares with his creator. Although it is the opposite of lighthearted—indeed, Parker has a gift for letting characters hit what they think is rock bottom and then dropping them a few hundred feet—Academic Exercises is terribly funny. It's the narrative voice that does it, that world-weary, cynical, dry, sarcastic voice. "Can you believe this?" that voice says, confidingly, to the reader. Parker's narrators are seldom trustworthy as people or as storytellers, and yet all of them seem to be trying to explain or justify themselves. In the attempt, they often reveal more than they mean to; when Eps, in "The Sun and I" says "They were looking at Zanipulus, which offended me rather. Just because he doesn't say much, people think he’s smart. Whereas I talk all the time, and you just have to listen to me for two seconds to realise how very clever I am" (p. 289), does he realize how ridiculous he's being? He does, and at the same time he doesn't, and that's the beauty of it.
If this collection has a weakness, it is the dominance of "the typical K. J. Parker protagonist" and the less-than-satisfactory results when Parker strays away from that model. Most glaringly, there are not many women to be found here, perhaps because of the story-world being so heavily influenced by late imperial Rome. There were active, interesting, powerful women in the Roman Empire, but with rare exceptions, their stories have come down to us as told by chroniclers who disapproved of them. Even if we read between the lines and judge them by a different standard, their opportunities were severely limited and they often had to sneak around and practice deception and manipulation in order to get anything done. So it is with Parker's women. There are very few women in these stories; the women who appear are often acted upon by men rather than being active in their own right; the ones who act in their own right typically do so by deception and manipulation. The fact that the women are wicked is hardly a problem, since the men are equally so. The real problem is that they are simply wicked, where the men's motivations are complex, mixed, and sometimes surprising even to themselves. The one notable exception can be found in "Illuminated"; it would spoil that deliciously twisted story too much to specify why, but her presence in the collection is just enough to make me wish Parker would write more women like her, and fewer two-dimensional victims like the prostitute in "Amore Vincit Omnia" or shallow manipulators like Eudoxia in "Blue and Gold."
That caveat aside, I confess I have been a K. J. Parker fan ever since I read Shadow (2001), the first volume of the Scavenger Trilogy. Despite the author's past form, I was a little apprehensive. Parker usually works at much greater length, and writers who thrive at novel-length or longer can sometimes flounder when they have to be concise. I needn't have worried: Academic Exercises is ferociously entertaining and thought-provoking throughout. I have enjoyed very few books as much as I enjoyed this one.
Katherine Farmar is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She blogs about the arts at Pansies and Nettles.