Prosper’s Demon, K.J. Parker (Tor.com Publishing 978-1250260512, $11.99, 104pp, tp) January 2020. Cover by Sam Weber.
One of the things you can count on from a K.J. Parker story, along with the dry wit of the prose, the morally dubious narrator, and the richness of his faux-historical Europe, is a fascination with the actual issues of economics, production, and manufacture that most fantasy writers blithely ignore: how, exactly, do you get millions of arrows made and delivered and paid for in time for a battle (as in Savages), or find a source of blue pigment for manuscript illumination? In Prosper’s Demon, he devotes several pages to explaining how to go about casting and building a giant bronze statue, in a passage that somehow makes thoroughly useless information thoroughly entertaining. It also gives us a remarkably clear glimpse of what work was actually like in a world like the one Parker constructs from bits and pieces of real history, and it becomes the most ambitious project undertaken by the unnamed narrator of the novella, who essentially makes his living as a freelance exorcist.
The tale begins, violently enough, with the narrator waking up soaked in blood next to a young woman whose throat has been torn out, which he immediately sees as a problem to manage rather than a tragedy (we’re helpfully told that marble is “about the only substance blood doesn’t soak into permanently”). It seems that, while the narrator can forcefully remove demons from the humans they inhabit (even though this may result in serious harm to the victim), those same demons can sneak into his own body and cause it to commit horrendous acts – which in turn can result in the exorcist himself often becoming a fugitive. “I have an idea you’re not going to like me very much,” he tells us early on, adding, “I do terrible things.” But he also is one of a fairly small number of individuals born with the gift of flushing out demons (of which there are said to be 72,936 on Earth, 109 in his jurisdiction), which he does several times a week. When he reads an announcement of a princess about to give birth under the auspices of her beloved tutor, Prosper of Schanz – who promotes himself as the most brilliant man who ever lived and employs two full-time biographers – the narrator realizes he has a duty to protect the newborn prince from possession and manages to cajole his way into the presence of the enormously obese Prosper, who, as a Renaissance rationalist, doesn’t believe in possession at all. Ironically, the narrator finds himself collaborating with Prosper in constructing the colossal bronze horse that the Duke has commissioned in honor of the new prince’s birth.
Characteristically, Parker intersperses his tale with revealing anecdotes from the narrator’s past, acerbic asides on the nature of politics and science, sharp-edged portraits of mostly unsympathetic, clueless, or self-absorbed secondary characters, and a surprisingly provocative debate on the nature of art, virtue, and power. And as usual, this lends his rather slender narrative the texture of a longer novel. Prosper’s Demon may be modest in terms of plot, but it’s rich with spiky ideas and with Parker’s inimitable and always entertaining voice.
–Gary K. Wolfe
This review and more like it in the March 2020 issue of Locus.
I usually only have one complaint about K.J. Parker’s novellas: I want them to be longer.
It’s not that the stories themselves feel unfinished, mind. It’s more that by the time I’ve fallen into the world he has built and begun to delight in his wit and word choice, the story is done and I am sad. Prosper’s Demon fits that pattern.
I mean, it’s a solid shorter story. A nameless narrator/exorcist wanders the medieval-ish countryside, looking for demon’s to evict from their human hosts. There is one who is our narrator’s nemesis, who is tracked down by said narrator. Complications ensue and the story is the narrator’s apologia about his choices in the case.
Prosper’s Demon is a satisfying snack that is completely comfortable with being one. But part of me still wishes it was an entire meal.
This review and more like it in the April 2020 issue of Locus.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
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