K. J. Parker, enigmatic military fantasist

Memory read Purple and Black a while ago, and because I am shallow, I added it to my list on the strength of the…um…the fact that it’s printed in two different colors. Don’t judge me! Part of the book IS IN PURPLE. Moreover, it’s an epistolary novel, a correspondence between the emperor of a Rome-type empire and an old school friend of his, who’s been put in charge of sorting out a rebellion force. There is a fair amount of griping back and forth, and reminiscing about the far more fun they and their friends had when they were in school.

Purple and Black is a wee little novella, not a proper full-length book, but it says a lot over its few pages. The emperor, Nico, acceded unwillingly to a troubled throne and is trying to find a way to avert another round of civil wars like the ones that have racked the empire throughout its history. But he has never wanted to be a ruler, any more than Name wanted to be a general, and they are both struggling to effect positive change while maneuvering within the clumsy apparatus of government and tradition. It’s a book about power and the institutions that allow it to operate.

This book sneaks up on you, man. You start out, everyone’s friends, they’re so light-hearted with each other, old school friends, and even when they’re going through bad stuff, really bad stuff, it still feels like a pretty cheerful sort of book. Then suddenly CRASH, things are not what you thought they were. So okay, that’s the new situation, things are slightly grimmer than before, but still going along, until CRASH, the situation is still not what you thought it was. And on like this to the end of the story, which was, to say the least, not what I expected.

Other reviews:

Stella Matutina
Fantasy Book Critic
Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist
Reading the Leaves
Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews

Did I miss yours? Read this straightaway and come talk to me about it!

As it happened, I was passing by the library a few days after reading Purple and Black, so I thought I would just stop in and see what other books by K. J. Parker might be had. Parker has written seven or eight books, including two trilogies, but my library only had one standalone novel, and one that’s the first in a series. I didn’t want to start a series I wouldn’t be able to finish, so I checked out the standalone, The Company. It’s about a group of five men, the survivors of a group of six “linebreakers” in the late war, the legendary A Company, to whom death did not seem to apply. Many years after the end of the war, their leader, Teuche Kunessin, has come up with an idea for the five of them to colonize a small island.

Between them, the men work out the details. They buy a ship and all the supplies they will need to set up a farm colony that will last and grow over the years. They fit themselves out with indentured servants, guns, livestock, building supplies, even wives, and take off for the island of Sphoe. Things do not go exactly according to plan. Though the men are still bound together by their years of service in the war, and are still able to work almost effortlessly as a team when they want to, there are underlying resentments and secrets. And nothing brings out resentments and secrets like being stuck on an island together.

I cannot put my finger on exactly what intrigued me about this book. Parker does very well at making his five characters believably competent and deadly, fascinating in spite of being unlikable. They’re both respected and feared, these men who survived over and over again a job that killed nearly all its practitioners. Even when they’re goofing off a bit among themselves, the reader’s not able to forget that they’re the most effective fighting force of their size in all the land. I dunno. It’s tense. Plus, I read the end (this was in August) so I knew where all this was heading.

Some stuff you might want to be aware of before starting reading K.J. Parker: K. J. Parker only believes in happy endings in the way that K. J. Parker believes in New Guinea. It exists but has no impact on K. J. Parker. Which, actually, is kind of the way the characters of The Company feel about women. The women are peripheral. This isn’t necessarily indicative of any bad attitudes on the part of K. J. Parker: the wives in The Company are not paid much notice by the five men, but then, the five men do not pay much attention to anyone outside of themselves. That’s sort of the point. You don’t get the impression that the women have no lives of their own, but because the men aren’t paying attention, the reader doesn’t get to see them much. I’ll be interested to see how Parker handles women in the other books I have yet to read but can hopefully get on PaperbackSwap.

Other reviews:

Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review
Genre Reader
Dark Wolf’s Fantasy
Reading the Leaves
Grasping for the Wind

Again, I will add a link if I missed yours. Promise.

Aw hell, I forgot all these books

I read seven more books in April than I reviewed here (oops).  To wit:

I read all the rest of the Company books, and at the end I was probably about 85% satisfied, the remaining 15% belonging to Mendoza and her lot, because that was a bit too weird for me.  Oh, and at least 1% of my dissatisfaction was down to Kage Baker’s suggesting that there would have been 315 Doctors on Doctor Who by 2351 (though I do appreciate the implication it’s got that kind of staying power).  That would necessitate a majority of the Doctors doing one year in the part; and come on, it’s the best acting gig in the world, why would anyone do just one year, let alone most of them?  (Paul McGann was in a film, and Christopher Eccleston was lending credibility, so that’s them explained away.)

Really, trapunto, thanks for the recommendation.  I had a ball with them.

Then I read this book called Reading the OED, which was, you know, about reading the whole of the OED, in the vein of A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All, when he chronicles his time reading the whole of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Reading the OED was fun in the sense that I like learning new words, but there wasn’t much to it.

I also read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which was about how people act contrary to how they think they’ll act, irrational but irrational in ways that studies can predict fairly reliably.  It was interesting, and I think people are irrational, and probably predictably so, but I didn’t always feel Ariely was making a strong case.  Most of his experiments were smallish, and most of them used students as subjects, which isn’t a representative sample of the population.  I also was sometimes bothered by his tone when he talked about women, and that put me off.

So that’s what I’ve been up to, that and cataloguing all my books on LibraryThing.  I’m moving soon, so as I catalogue them, I stack them all up in stacks in the living and dining room in my apartment.  This makes it difficult to find any individual book.  It took me ten minutes to find The Dud Avocado, which I’m reading for the Spotlight Series tour of NYRP Classics in mid-May.  Up with independent publishers!

Review: Sky Coyote and Mendoza in Hollywood, Kage Baker

I was going to review Kelly Corrigan’s memoir The Middle Place, but then I realized that there is no particular value in reviewing things in the order you read them, especially when you are devouring a series like a wascally wabbit devours carrots, and each review you write that is not dedicated to the series in question is going to put you further and further behind on reviews.  So here we are.  My contention that Kelly Corrigan is mistaken in her book’s central claim will have to wait.

Speaking of sound effects, Kage Baker’s books are now giving me the mental sound effect of Cookie Monster eating cookies.  Ommmm narm narm narm narm narm narm narm narm.

Sky Coyote mostly ditches Mendoza in order to follow Joseph, the cyborg who rescued her from the Inquisition.  A century and a half on from the events of In the Garden of Iden (the characters haven’t aged, of course, being cyborgs), Joseph has been charged with impersonating a Chumash deity so that the Company can preserve one Chumash village and their culture entire, before white settlers come to wipe them out.  Joseph, a company man with wobbly morals from way back, is a perfect choice to impersonate the Chumash trickster god Sky Coyote.

Set to rest are my fears that the second book by Kage Baker would disappoint me, though now my fears are taking a longer view and worrying that the series will not be satisfactorily resolved in the end.  I was reluctant to begin Sky Coyote because I thought I might not enjoy all Joseph all the time, cynical manipulative trickster that he is.  Fortunately, as we learn more about his past, and particularly about his past with Mendoza, he proves to be a far more sympathetic character than I perhaps gave him credit for last time out.

Some intriguing things come to light in this book.  We learn more about the differetn brands of cyborg, and we hear about the fact that cyborgs are not given any history past the year 2355.  Why, we don’t know.  We also meet some twenty-fourth century humans, who have set up a fancy base in order to supervise the cyborgs’ handling of the Chumash project.  They are stupid, childish, and squeamishly averse to all forms of violence and vice, including smoking, drinking, and even eating the cyborg drug Theobromos (which is chocolate).  Joseph and the other cyborgs are mystified: Are all humans like this?  And if so, how did they ever manage to create the cyborgs?

Narm narm narm narm narm.

Mendoza in Hollywood jumps 150 years ahead again.  After spending the time since Sky Coyote in relative solitude, Mendoza is summoned to Los Angeles for a mission to save various species of plant from the drought that will occur.  She is based at a stagecoach inn with four other operatives of various disciplines, and she is haunted by nightmares of her past.  Time is acting strangely, and Mendoza is producing Crome’s radiation in her sleep, a kind of energy that gives psychic powers to humans and is not meant to be present, ever, in children chosen to be converted to cyborgs.  A lot of very bewildering stuff happens, stuff that according to all the laws the cyborgs know should not be able to happen.

However, this excitement does not last forever.  Mendoza runs out of plants to save, and just as she thinks she will die of boredom (highlight the white text for spoilers, which will spoil the entire ending of this book as well as the ending of In the Garden of Iden) a British man identical to her martyred lover Nicholas Harpole shows up pursuing a British conspiracy to take over California while the Americans are busy fighting the Civil War.  HIJINKS ENSUE but not for very long as Nicholas Harpole Mark 2 (he’s called Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax now) soon gets shot dead, sending poor lovelorn Mendoza into a killing rage.  The Company are not fans of killing rages in their cyborgs.

These books have been for the Time Travel Reading Challenge, and my list for that challenge has really been shot all to hell by now, but really, I could not have anticipated this sort of a bookish windfall when I made the list, could I?

As of this writing I am halfway through the fourth book, The Graveyard Game, and the plot, my doves, it is thickening.  It is thickening so much in fact that it is beginning to resemble the Candy Land Molasses Swamp.  By the time I post this review I expect I shall be ensconced most thrillingly in The Life of the World to Come, and I am expecting some serious payoffs for all this build-up.

When I asked y’all to recommend me fantasy books, this reading experience is exactly what I was looking for: tumbling headlong through a long, thrilling series with ever more mysterious mysteries about the world the characters live in.  HOORAY.  IT WORKED.

Other reviews of Sky Coyote:

Regular Ruminations
bookshelves of doom

Other reviews of Mendoza in Hollywood:

Adventures in Reading

Did I miss yours?

Edit to add: Clare has reminded me that “narm” means something else.  I don’t want to edit and change it and make her comment look crazy, and thus I will just say here that yes, nom nom nom nom is a better description of the sound effect anyway.