Understanding Mu by Hans Stefan Santesson
Unexpected Reviews: 24 (Season 7)

Underground Reading: Purple & Black by KJ Parker

KJ ParkerKJ Parker might as well change his/her pen name to "The Enigmatic". Not only do the official blurbs refer to the author in this fashion, but virtually every review does the same for his/her books. "KJ Parker" is a pseudonym (supposedly of someone that's already famous in another genre), but the cryptic reputation is reinforced by his/her chosen stylistic territory.

Parker, as I've pretentiously noted in the past, writes epic fantasy with the tone and flair of the great existentialists. Imagine Camus (beret / chain-smoking / small coffee / derisive look) secretly going home and reading Tolkien under the covers. The closest modern comparison is Andrzej Sapkowski, who also lends a certain stark & philosophical bent to his work. (Although the 'stark' could be the result of the translations).

Purple and Black is a limited edition novella from Subterranean Press, who have defied the 2009 malaise by putting out some stonking short fiction over the past 12 months. 

It is, first and foremost, a stunning book. Subterranean pulled out all the stops - even printing it in mixed purple and black text. A short (120 pg) book, this is a quick read, but by no means a light one.

The novella takes place in a world vaguely analogous to the late Roman empire, although, like in The Company, world-building details are kept deliberately abstracted in favor of character-building. And, despite the short span of the book, there's plenty of character. An epistolary novel is tough to write, but Parker manages to bring both letter-writers to life. The idealistic young Emperor Nico and his cynical friend Phormio are both astoundingly empathetic - all the more impressive as we only know them from their own words.

Nico has appointed his friend as General. The Empire is under attack, but the young Emperor is afraid that if he appoints one of the 'steelneck' old guard, he'll soon be facing a civil war. Instead, he trusts the security of his empire to his old school friend. Phormio is woefully unprepared for the task, but, as the reader discovers, is willing to give it the old college try.

There are quite a few twists and turns throughout the course of the book - not all of which are unexpected. In order to pull off the final 'ah-ha!', Parker throws in a bit more explanatory backstory than I would have preferred, but, overall, the book stays closely focused. Like The Company, this is a look at the horrors of war, but from a different angle: can ambition and trust ever live alongside one another?

The "enigmatic" (there you go!) Parker is one of the finest writers at work today - each new volume of philosophical, introspective, dark fantasy is a treat. Purple and Black is a highlight of 2009 - don't wait until 2010 to read it.