The Big Score, K.J. Parker (Subterranean 978-1-64524-000-6, $40.00, 104pp, hc) March 2021.
The Big Score sounds like a title from the golden age of sleazy paperbacks, or maybe a high-octane, low-budget action flick. In fact, it was both, and I suspect K.J. Parker either knew this or didn’t care in choosing it for the latest novella set in his hilariously corrupt version of Renaissance Europe, which has shown a remarkable consistency over the years, with its endless cast of scurrilous alchemists, rogues, scoundrels, liars, cowards, and double-crossers. We’ve grown familiar with the Studium, a university packed with self-important professors, with the religion of the Invincible Sun (founded as a scheme to fleece its believers), and with the legendary alchemist, philosopher, and wife-murderer Saloninus, who told his own story in Blue and Gold (2010). Saloninus returned again in The Devil You Know in 2016, trying to sell his soul to a rather hapless devil, and now he’s back in a third novella, only this time we learn that he was not only the world’s greatest philosopher and alchemist, but also the greatest composer, playwright, poet, mathematician, and scientist. Plus, he invented blue paint.
For all his legendary genius, Saloninus was a terrible businessman, never able to turn a profit on his work, depending instead on various schemes and swindles that frequently leave him on the run. “I became a crook when I was young, impressionable, and broke, was forced to carry on being crooked by circumstances beyond my control, and I sort of stuck like it thereafter.” As The Big Score opens, he’s just faked his own funeral as part of another getaway plan, and is looking for ways to monetize his “death.” He meets his former partner in crime, a brilliant woman forger who has always managed to outsmart him and who now hatches an apparently foolproof scheme. Discovering that a manuscript of an older Saloninus play has been auctioned off for a fortune, she persuades him to write a new play in his own hand, which she’ll then pass off as a lost manuscript of the late great playwright, being careful that the ink and paper are authentic enough to fool the experts. The play he describes to her is clearly Hamlet, and her response after being told that the prince avenges his father is, “That’s it?”
“Oh, come on,” she said. “You’ve got to have a love interest. And a feisty, kick-ass heroine. It’s the law.”
Parker manages to neatly skewer both literary scholarship and literary fashion in a few lines here, and such sharp-edged asides are a good part of what keeps his fiction entertaining, along with his shamelessly corrupt characters. Whether her scheme works or backfires is something best left up to the reader to discover, but overall The Big Score is a worthy, and wildly entertaining, addition to the Saloninus saga.
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.
This review and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.
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