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Purple and Black
K.J. Parker
Subterranean Press, 120 pages

Purple and Black
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
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

Over the past eleven years, K.J. Parker (a pseudonym; the writer's true identity has never been revealed) has built a reputation for her own particular style of genre fantasy: a style characterized by down-to-earth, rather brutal portrayals of warfare and politics; earthily humorous, but with an ultimately serious tone -- a sense that this is the real messy business of how such affairs would be conducted in a pre-industrial world.

Purple and Black, Parker's first novella, begins thus:

Phormio, governor of Upper Tremissis, to His Divine Majesty Nicephorus V, brother of the invincible Sun, father of his people, defender of the faith, emperor of the Vesani, greetings.

Phormio begs to inform His Majesty that he has safely arrived in Tremissis City and has assumed control of the civil and military administration.

You are, of course, an unmitigated bastard...

Yup, that's K.J. Parker writing, and no mistake.

The novella is written in epistolatory form, specifically as a series of military dispatches between an emperor and his governor on the frontier. The title refers to the two colours of ink used in those messages: purple for the official dispatches, and black for the personal communiqués enclosed with them (the book itself will be printed in those two colours; I can't tell you how it looks, because my proof copy is in monochrome -- but, if past experience with Subterranean books is a guide, I'm sure it will be gorgeous). It also serves as a metaphor for how outward appearances can mask the truth, just as the formal tone of the dispatches conceals the reality to be found in the longer messages.

The story goes that Nicephorus was a scholar, until he suddenly found himself made emperor when all the male members of his family managed to do each other in. Needing to surround himself with people he could trust, Nico sent his best friend Phormio north to be governor of Upper Tremissis, where he now has to deal with unknown insurgents who appear to have inside information.

The epistolatory mode is an interesting choice, as it takes the focus away from the "action" as such, and turns it more on Nico's and Phormio's travails. The banter between the two friends rings true, and makes them more convincing as characters in a story that doesn't necessarily give its author much more opportunity to develop them.

Actually, I think Parker deals well in general with the limitations of her chosen structure. She manages to tell a complete story that gives due acknowledgement of the impact its events have on the characters who live through them (even if the distance of the telling means we don't necessarily experience that impact so much ourselves). She weaves in the back-story skilfully, and raises some difficult ethical issues. Here, for example, is Phormio ruminating on what it is to command his forces to go after the enemy:

In one sense, you're the Angel of Death. People are going to die because of you, and isn't that the most appalling thing imaginable? On the other hand, it's perfectly all right, because the bad guys are the enemy, it's like killing rats, not homicide but pesticide; and some of the good guys will have to get killed, too, because that's the price we pay. Well, not you and me personally. Just soldiers. It's what they're paid for.
Parker doesn't really offer an answer to conundrums like this; in the end, it's... well, it's that messy business of warfare and politics again, I suppose. Though not a major piece of work, Purple and Black packs in a lot given its constraints; and is a better read than many a fantasy of its ilk.

Copyright © 2009 David Hebblethwaite

David Hebblethwaite is not an architect, an artist, or even an archaeologist. However, he is a reader and reviewer of fantastic literature, whose work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. You can read more at his blog, Follow the Thread.

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