Fiction – April 2020

Despite the cover quotes, I didn’t like this. The central character did not interest me. Neither did the overlong passages of text where nothing happened other than the word count going up. In my opinion, over hyped and under-edited. First miss from this author.

Novella in the typical K. J. Parker style: a first person dialog from someone whose narrative – telling of his experiences as an exorcist – may not be the whole truth, in a fantasy world that reflects all of humanity’s failings. Easy to read, entertaining, and fun.

A youngster is kidnapped but escapes. The police are sure the victim knows who committed the crime, but the youngster is refusing to name anyone. Why? Though the writing is often a bit clunky, this is a great story, breathlessly told, and highly enjoyable.

Who is it who slaughtered the young man in the forest? And why? D.I. Helen Grace to the rescue! This is decent enough crime novel that doesn’t ever rise above that level. Not bad, but not the best.

Now you’re talking! Caleb Zelic, profoundly deaf, is an investigator who gets himself too deeply involved in a case involving the brutal murder of a friend. Circumstances force Caleb back to his home town of Resurrection Bay, meeting up with his ex-wife and her extended family. But this is no refuge. A taut tale that sharply exposes the racism the aboriginal community in Australia endures, as well as the outright injustices. Caleb is a great character, a detective with more than one challenge in his life. way. You do not want to miss this, the first in a well received series.

I’ll be brief: number two in the Caleb Zelic series. You want to read this.

Yes, that True Grit, the one that was made into a John Wayne film. It’s the tale of Mattie Ross, a fourteen year old girl of unusual maturity and focus, seeking justice for the slaying of her father. Rooster Coburn, ex-Confederate cavalryman, is no one dimensional hero or baddie, but he is the one recruited to do the job. The book is wider in its range than the film, and has many more comical moments. I get the impression reading this wonderful story that Charles Portis would have made an excellent dinner guest.

Whatever this was trying to be – psychological drama, horror, or fantasy – it didn’t work. It bored me to bits. Avoid.

This is the first Nils Shapiro story which I read out of sync, having already finished Broken Ice back in August 2019. Shapiro is a private detective, in this case investigating the death of a divorcee at the suggestion of a former police colleague. In addition to the challenges faced there, such as the involvement of the FBI (who want Shapiro well away) our hero is trying to get over his ex-wife and facing struggles in his private life. While a bit raw in places, overall this was pretty good. The character and backdrop are well done, and the dialog has its moments.

This is a Cold War spy novel, featuring grizzled espionage expert Harry Mackintosh in an operation that goes badly wrong. Seeking his revenge, Mackintosh recruits safe cracker Jimmy Walker. You can see where this is going. On the plus side, the story races along and the tension is well maintained. There are twists and turns and some veritable stretching of plausibility in some corners of the plot. On the down side, the writing is workmanlike rather than elegant. And there are chunks of cliche punctuating the portrayal of the characters. Overall, OK, but nothing more.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City – K. J. Parker

Do you like fantasy fiction? Yes? Then buy this book. You will love it.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is the story of a great city and the less than great man who becomes responsible for saving it from the besieging forces camped outside. But this is no normal siege, and this is no normal tale. It’s bursting with humor (mostly dark) and invention, and changes of plot direction that can momentarily lave you dazzled. It’s great entertainment, with a fascinating main character anti-hero, and an onslaught of supporting characters that add to the developing tension, and the need to keep on turning the page.

Primarily, the narrative is the thing. Parker is a top class storyteller, and the story is one deserving of his skills. It helps that – despite the fantasy setting – what is on show is a panorama of all too realistic human behavior; there’s good, bad, and indifferent. Fate intervenes. Things do not always work out. But it’s always enthralling.

Just great.

The Two of Swords – K J Parker

I finished the second and third volumes of this fantasy tale with mixed feelings. The central story is a war between two counties that seems not be to either’s advantage. The narrative is largely told through the eyes of individual contributors to the action – soldier, spy, diplomat, and so on – giving some finely observed detail to add to the sweeping grand maneuvers.

The author is a great storyteller, and the book is jam packed with twists, turns, action, and adventure. It’s also an exceedingly complex plot where, at times, it can be hard to work out if a character’s motivation is all that it seems to be. Subterfuge, deception, and treachery are ever present. But, was it worth it? Was the book too rich for my tastes?

Originally, the three books were actually a series (19 I think) of novellas that you subscribed to, and the author released to a monthly schedule. I cannot help wondering if the cramped nature of the book, especially in the closing stages, was the result of writing to a deadline and a formula.

The books are good, but not great. I don’t think the format allowed Parker to be at his best. It was a worthwhile experience, and I am glad I read it, but I hope the next book by the author follows a more traditional route.

The Last Witness – K J Parker

This is another novella (100 pages or so) by the dazzling fantasy writer, K J Parker, taking snippets from his bestselling novels as background for an intriguing, twisting, turning tale about memory, reality, and perception. It features a character with a special ability to extract memories from people, and using his first person perspective, narrates his life story.

There are some sharply observed comments about memory, and the frailties of our existence on ths planet.

But it is not boring or pretentious. On the contrary, it’s a roller coaster of a tale, finishing with the usual flourish, and leaving the reader sad that the excitement is over. Well written, very satisfying, and lean and mean, this is a little cracker. (Or a big cracker in a little package.)


The Devil You Know – K J Parker

A short (120 page) book, with a long (encompassing several years worth of) conversation between one of Parker’s long standing creations, Saloninus, and one of the Devil’s minions. The encounter between these two is an unfair contest…

Easy to read, full of delightful barbs, witticisms, and pauses for thought, this is a fun and rewarding read. It is cheeky, irreverent, packs a punch at the end, and is well worthy of your time.

One point worth stressing is that you do not need to have read any of the author’s other material to enjoy the book. It does stand on its own.

Highly recommended. (But get the Kindle version, as the paperback is ridiculously overpriced.)

Academic Exercises – K J Parker

A quick search on this site will show that I am a fan of Parker’s work. I keep my eyes out for new material, but was disappointed when I saw that Subterranean Press‘ new publication was actually a collection of previously published material. However, given that I am not a regular reader of short stories, this stuff was unsurprisingly all new to me and I was keen to read it. Broadly speaking, I was not disappointed.

The stories include two longish pieces “Purple and Black” and “Blue and Gold” which are the standouts. The strange thing is that, previously, Parker’s fantasy books were devoid of magic. But here magic makes an appearance. I wonder what that means we will see in future novels?

All of the fiction is of a similar style. There may not be any baddies, but the goodies are flawed and do terrible things. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The writing is chatty, entertaining, and sometimes deliberately misdirects you. If you like the style, you will hate it when the book is done. But for some the style may grate and I am unsure if the stories will in such cases be good enough to hold the reader’s attention. In short, I recognize that matters of taste may interfere.

While I enjoyed the collection, I sometimes felt that Parker’s style did not fit so well with the short story format. The stories worked and were good enough. But there was a feeling that behind the short story was a novel that would really do a better job. This may be bias because I remain largely unmoved by the short story format.

It’s worth highlighting that three of the best pieces are non fiction – about swords, sieges, and armor, respectively. They are excellent examples of well crafted writing that can educate, entertain, and give food for thought, all in the one creation.

If you are a Parker fan and have not read the short stories, grab this. If you have not yet experienced Parker, this is a good way to get a decent taste. But you may also want to browse the Wikipedia entry (here) for links to free short stories, and try them out first.

[Parker seems to have mastered the trick of keeping the real identity behind the name a secret. Is there any other modern author who has taken a similar approach?].