K.J. Parker is a two times World Fantasy Award-winning author, and also something of a mystery – the name is a pseudonym and the real identify of the author has never yet been revealed. The official K.J. Parker website doesn’t shed much light on the enigma, although it does list the author’s excellent series of longer works. Academic Exercises is his first collection of shorter fiction, but “he” here is a convention, since K.J. Parker could well be as female as J.K. Rowling. It’s quite a collection too, at 536 pages long, with two World Fantasy Award-winning novellas (“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” and “Let Maps to Others”), as well as nine other stories and three essays. (And incidentally, for another excellent review of the collection, see Justin Landon’s piece on the Tor blog here.)
The “Academic” in the title, stems, if anywhere, from the setting and mood of many of the tales, in an invented fantasy world with a decidedly steampunk (or rather, black powder-punk) flavor, the world of the Vesani Republic (faintly redolent of Venice) and the Empire already visited in “his” The Folding Knife, where the Studium, a collegiate institution that teaches magic (or at least, paranormal physics) on a quasi-scientific basis, features prominently. There’s a decidedly mordant, sardonic tone to many of the narratives, and a display of Latinate learning, which reinforce the unity of the tales. You could object to a certain uniformity of tone and subject matter, except that this is world-building one story at a time, along the lines of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age or Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon cycle, and no one ever complained that those were too monotonous.
And K.J. Parker’s stories are good enough to invite comparison with those illustrious forebears, as well as benefiting from great maturity of presentation. Politics as well as magic are dealt with in a decidely adult, non-fantastic manner – more sabres-and-scientific-alchemy than swords-and-sorcery – and the ironies are piled on thick and fast. Read “Purple and Black,” for instance, for a quietly and steadily developed account of the seductions of power, and the distortions of idealism and ideology, that builds gradually towards an ultimately chilling outcome. Or “Amor Vincit Omnia” for a rundown on the political consequences of an ultimate (magical) weapon – that isn’t a weapon. And if the fantasy world of the Vesani begins to pall, you can dip into K.J. Parker’s three fascinating historical essays on sieges, swords, and armor, which will send many readers – me included – on massive Wikipedia and YouTube-trawling expeditions, and change your views on their subjects forever.
If your ideal of good, very well-written fantasy is closer to Mervyn Peake and George R.R. Martin than Dragonlance, then this is definitely a collection for you. Even if it’s not, you probably will learn something, and maybe even a lot. Recommended.