I don't read a lot of short fiction - this isn't to say that I avoid it due to literary snobbery (I reserve that for certain subgenres), I just tend to find that the experience is a little jarring. I like the experience of sinking into an author's particular style - unfortunately, when that experience is only a few pages long, and then I'm vomited back to the surface, I feel a little cheated.
What's this all mean? I suppose, even more than usual, when I'm poking me crit-stick at shorts, buyer beware.
Fortunately, there's nothing to be wary of when it comes to KJ Parker's latest effort, "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong". Here's the short version of the short story: it is brilliant.
Were I in some sort of cruel alternate universe where I was forced to rank Parker's work in order to save the lives of big-eyed puppies, I'd probably set "Birdsong" up near the top, peering up at the imperial majesty of the Engineer Trilogy and trying its best to stamp the Scavenger Trilogy down.
The premise is deceptively simple. A renowned music teacher - more theoretician than composer - visits his most impressive pupil on the eve of the latter's execution. They bandy words around, there's no question that the teacher is jealous of the pupil yet hideously gutted that the latter will soon be lost to the world. Fortunately (kind of) the pupil escapes, so the relationship between the two continues. I won't go further, as there are plot twists on every page.
And that's part of the joy of "Birdsong". For a short story, it contains volumes of plot twists, revelations, character development and, rarely for KJ Parker, even a sort of clear emotional closure. Using music as its ostensible focus, (Mr/Ms/Whatever) Parker addresses the relationship between teacher and pupil, artist and art, winner and loser. Just as engineering, finance and blacksmithing play thematic central roles in Parker's earlier work, music flows throughout this piece, but, yet (thank god) a knowledge of music is not essential to the reader.
I'm generally pretty reluctant to deconstruct an author's intent, but in this case, I can't help but wildly speculate. "Birdsong" addresses not just the creation of an art, but also its reception, and, perhaps, of more relevance to the enigmatic* Parker, the relationship between a piece of creative work and its ostensible owner. "Birdsong" does a lot of prodding into the importance of the name on the bottom of the page - whose name is it? And how much does it matter - to both artist and art alike?
Mind you, that's on top of the normal brilliance that Parker now produces as standard: the use of a streamlined fantasy setting, flawed and engaging characters, convoluted plotting, moral ambiguity and a sort of stylish un-style that makes the entire thing flow like olive oil.
Keeping that in mind, if nothing else, this is a free short story from KJ Parker. And a good one. This isn't just a matter of being gently jollied along until the next work - "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong" is one of the best works he/she has written for years.
*All reviews are contractually bound to refer to KJ Parker as "enigmatic".