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Blue and Gold
K.J. Parker
Subterranean Press, 104 pages

Blue and Gold
K.J. Parker
Having worked in journalism and the law, K.J. Parker (a pseudonym) now writes and makes things out of wood and metal.

K.J. Parker Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Purple and Black

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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I'll start by saying quite simply that I had more pleasure reading Blue and Gold than just about anything I've read all year. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the best thing I've read all year -- this novella is, after all, first and foremost about fun, and while fun is great (and we need more of it), sometimes one wants some meat as well. Yet to say that Blue and Gold is purely an entertainment is unfair as well -- in among the beautifully constructed plot and the cynical jokes there is some worthwhile commentary on man as a political beast.

The story is set in what seemed to me something of an alternate Rome or Byzantium, perhaps a bit like the Rome of Avram Davidson's Vergil Magus stories or his Peregrine stories. (I base this in part on the names of the main characters: the narrator, Saloninus, shares his name with a Roman emperor, and the other main character, Phocas, has the name of a Byzantine emperor.) More properly, I suppose, we could say that this is set in an unspecified fantastical history that bears some resemblance to late Roman empire times or to Byzantine times. Saloninus, our narrator, tells us he is the greatest living alchemist. Apparently that's true, though as he also tells us, he doesn't always tell the truth. Indeed, he opens the book by telling someone "In the morning, I discovered the secret of changing base metal into gold. In the afternoon, I murdered my wife." Whether either or both or neither of these claims is true is much of what the story is about.

Saloninus was a fairly prominent member of his society, and a promising student of the local university, when his Uncle died and the family fortune was revealed to consist mostly of debts. Since then he has led a checkered career, alternating between criminal acts and some fairly impressive scholarship. One thing that's kept him out of prison is his old friend Phocas, who was an obscure member of the Royal family when they met, but who improbably advanced to become the Prince. Saloninus is also married to Prince Phocas's sister. And he's been working on two alchemical projects for them: the secret of changing base metal into gold, and the secret of eternal youth. But when his wife dies, apparently after testing one of Saloninus's latest formulas, he becomes a wanted man. And so most of the story consists of his repeated attempts to escape, alternating with negotiations with Phocas, who still wants that secret of changing base metal into gold, and who perhaps isn't as broken up about his sister's death as you might expect.

All this is recounted very entertainingly. Blue and Gold is an extremely funny book through and through. The humor, and some of the darkness behind it, reminded me a good deal of Tom Holt's masterpiece, The Walled Orchard. As the story continues we learn, in a cunning and very well structured way, more and more of Saloninus's past as well as that of Phocas, and of the political situation in which they exist. It's really a beautifully constructed plot, which snaps home elegantly at the close. Where it is also revealed exactly why the book is called Blue and Gold: gold seems obvious enough, but why blue? The reason is the last delight in a book full of them.

Copyright © 2011 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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